Brainstrummings from a Bug-Eyed Bookworm

Tiff is a PhD student in English literature at UC-Berkeley. She takes no prisoners, bars no holds, holds no bars.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Chinese Princess in Papua and the Spice Islands: Parts 1-3

I've been posting these on facebook, but someone said I should post them to my blog too. They're episodes of my trip this summer with PM to Papua and the Spice Islands in Indonesia. Here are installments 1-3.


I lived in Indonesia for six years and my family is Indonesian-Chinese. This bit of information about myself usually means that I automatically acquire cultural cache at social gatherings in the United States. All of a sudden, I’m cosmopolitan and enlightened. I “bring a different voice to the table.” My “unique cultural perspective” becomes something of high estimation. In Indonesia, of course, living in Indonesia for six years is far from anything remarkable. Some Indonesians (unbelievably!) have lived in Indonesia for more than ten! Even in Singapore, where I spent eight years of my life, and where the mother’s side of my family still resides, living in Indonesia hardly brands you as an exotic. But in the good old U.S. of A, surrounded by good old citizens of said good old nation, I become a special little snowflake. It’s actually kind of nice.

However, what many people don’t realise is that almost all of those six years in Indonesia were spent either a) at the expensive private international school I attended, b) inside shopping malls, c) watching rented movies on laser-disc at home*, d) napping in air-conditioned cars en route to school, mall, or home. The Indonesian-Chinese segment of the populace is a minority, but holds most of the country’s wealth: a situation which tends to build resentment among the majority Pribumi (native) population, who bear most of the country’s poverty. Indonesian-Chinese are more often than not well-to-do by Indonesian standards, and at the very least, middle-class. And in Indonesia, where labour is cheap, being middle-class gets you a driver, a maid, and a lot of obsequious cringes and bows from everyone serving you.

In short, my six years in Indonesia were a very sheltered six years spent as a sort of Chinese princess who kept to the air-conditioned indoors in the capital city. Since I went to a school with an English-language curriculum, and since my parents spoke English to us, I had no need to learn any Indonesian apart from telling the maid I what I wanted to eat, or asking the waiter for a glass of iced tea. I only learned Bahasa Indonesia well enough to converse and read when I started graduate school at UC-Berkeley. Let’s be honest here: six years in a foreign country without learning the language properly….that’s pretty pathetic.

So when the opportunity came to spend a month actually travelling around Indonesia, going to villages and beaches and jungles rather than malls and restaurants and hotels, taking (horror of horrors) transportation not driven by a private chauffeur, perhaps even interacting and communicating with Indonesians themselves…when that opportunity knocked, I thought it was time to open the door and seize opportunity by the jugular. It was looking to be PM’s last golden and glorious summer as a shiftless graduate student before he began life as a respectable employed working-type in Atlanta, GA. We decided to spend a portion of it travelling around the country which happened to fall within the area of our respective studies (terrorists and postcolonial literature). PM and I sped with all due haste in his car to a Borders bookstore and I procured the most recent travel guide on Indonesia we could find (Lonely Planet). We set about trying to plan things. My father, who had spent many years starting and running a timber business in Papua desired to come with us. “I always wanted to take you around Indonesia when you were a kid,” my dad told me, “but your mother always thought it was too dangerous.” Eventually, at the very last minute, a coherent course of action for the vacation emerged: start in the province of Papua, closest to the border between Indonesia and its eastern neighbour Papua New Guinea. Then, (as the Pet Shop Boys exhorted), go west…to Maluku—the famed Spice Islands infamous for their spice and all the sanguinary squabbles over the spice.

Did we know what we were getting ourselves into? Yes, we had some idea.
Did we have any idea how perilous it was going to be? No, but it didn’t turn out to be very perilous at all.
Were we prepared to have interesting experiences in a foreign land? Yes, completely.

Well, then. Let’s get this travel account on the road!

*For those of you who don’t know what a laser-disc is: a really big, heavy DVD the size of an LP record which was supposed to replace the video-tape and take the world by storm. The A-track of visual home entertainment.

Wamena: Where Cement is King
To kick off our trip, we started in Papua province, in Wamena—a little town very close to the border between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. And by “little”, I mean “tiny”. As in the entire town consists of about three main roads running parallel to each other, connected at intervals by perpendicular roads. To get to Wamena we took an airplane. Everything takes an airplane to get to Wamena. And by “everything”, I mean “tiny”. Sorry, I meant to say, by “everything”, I mean everything. There are no roads to Wamena and very little industry or agricultural production in the region itself. Chicken, rice, household goods, furniture, lightbulbs, wheelbarrows, petrol, cement—all of it has to be flown in via air, with the consequence that everything is about four to six times more expensive than other places in the region.

Did I mention that cement costs four to six times more than usual? I think I did, but I mention it again because cement seemed to be the standard by which everyone seemed to measure the cost of living. Every conversation we had with locals somehow circled back to the outrageous prices one had to pay for cement. It was as if PM and I had stumbled upon some little cultural quirk which we obviously weren’t accustomed to. Somehow, Dad and Pak Daniel (a friend and former employee who accompanied us on the trip to help with travel arrangements and such) seemed to understand the great gravity of cement. “How much does a bag of cement cost here?” my father would ask to start off a conversation with the taxi-driver. “It’s expensive to live here,” a local would complain. “Do you know how much a kilo of cement costs?” Pak Daniel would point at a bag of cement sitting on the roadside: “About how much would it cost to buy that much cement?” In these here parts, it appeared that cement was king. This was no place for wanton and extravagant building projects. Nor could one hear the laughter of little children playing with cement, as little children are wont to do. In fact, in my mind’s ear I heard the stern remonstration of a mother to her daughter: “Stop that right this instant! Do you think cement grows on trees?!?”

With the cost of living so high in Wamena, most of the Papuan population is very poor. Even poorer than in other parts of Indonesia, and that’s saying something. All of the more lucrative businesses such as the shops and eating establishments were owned by ethnic Malays imported in by the government as part of the government’s transmigration programme. (More on transmigration later.) To cope with the expense of buying basic necessities, most of which have to be imported, Papuan farmers raise the prices of local foodstuffs such as oranges, pineapples, cassava. It appeared that the Papuans who weren’t farmers or woodcutters were by and large dependent on begging (quite literally) tourists to buy their souvenirs. Or if they were men, charging money to take pictures of them wearing their somewhat sparse traditional costume of a koteka—a penis sheath—and nothing else. One village we visited nearby the city drew most of their income from charging people to see and take pictures with a mummy—one of their forefathers which had been preserved using the traditional method of placing the body in a sort of smokehouse. The minute we showed up, the men ran to change out of their t-shirts and shorts into their kotekas. They brought out the smoked ancestral body and set in on a stump. We were allowed to take one photograph with it. Additional photographs cost extra. We couldn’t blame them really: why not milk the rich tourists for what they were worth? But there was something shameful about how unashamed they were about it: Aren’t we strange and exotic and primitive? Give us money and take a picture of our ancestor’s body. Give us more money and take a picture of our sheathed penises and our bare breasts.

Given that everything costs a lot in Wamena, perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised that pigs were really expensive too. Yet, we were surprised…because pigs were really really really expensive. To put things in context: a plate of fried rice at a roadside stall costs 30,000 rupiah—a splurge for a person of average income in Wamena. A small pig costs 2 million rupiah. A big pig costs 5 million rupiah. But why? In traditional Papuan culture, for reasons never made clear to us, pigs are an extremely valuable commodity. Unlike ethnic Malays who are mostly Muslim, Papuans are Christian or Animist and have no problems with eating pork. In fact, eating pork is very important to them. Pigs are eaten to commemorate very special occasions, and most importantly, pigs are the currency with which one buys oneself a wife. One man informed us that he had to shell out 4 million rupiah to buy the pig he gave to his wife’s family as compensation. We asked him, why continue to eat pigs if they were so expensive? Why not eat chicken or beef? “It’s our culture. It’s already our culture,” he told us.

After our first day in Wamena, we were tired. That evening, we retired to our hotel—the most expensive hotel in town—patched up holes in the mosquito screens, bathed in sporadically hot water, and laid our heads down on the stained, but supposedly clean, sheets to rest.

My Father: A Strong Man, a Quiet Man, but Not a Cardiovascular Kind of Guy

The photos of my father taken during his college days show a lanky Chinese guy sporting thick, black rimmed glasses and shoulder-length hair. Which is exactly what he was back then. But during his early forties, my dad began to pump iron. I remember big books on muscle-building lying around the house, as well as a frighteningly large bottle of powdered Muscle Mass Protein Shake 3000 materialising on our kitchen counter. My dad would fix up two large glasses of highly caloric protein shake every morning: one for himself and one for my laughably skinny older brother, who was about 14 at the time. The protein shakes never worked on my brother.

After my parents divorced, my father began working out even more, bench-pressing at the gym and getting a black-belt in aikido. The result of all this working out, is that Dad is 5’10” and weighs 88 kg (195 lbs)—mostly muscle mass which a thin layer of…um…extra padding due to his love for cakes, breads, and other bakery items. However, while my father is very strong, he is very heavy, and as he never really made walking or running a big part of his workout, he’s not a huge fan of hiking, jogging, sprinting, and other activities which require one to move 88 kilograms around on one’s legs. In short, Dad is not a cardiovascular kind of guy.

So imagine his delight when I expressed my love of walking long distances and suggested that a hike through the Papuan countryside would be a good idea. The original plan was that me, PM, and Pak Daniel would go hiking, and leave my father behind in the town. Pak Daniel, despite being a short, bald, pot-bellied, middle-aged man, was a really good walker. His job with the timber company had involved scouting sites of current and future logging operations, required him to spend days traversing long distances in the wilderness of Papua. And since he had spent the last two years in jail, taking the rap for some illegal logging operations which the new Malaysian owners of the company had decided to undertake without informing him, he seemed pleased at the chance to stretch his legs once more.

We were going to walk from town to a hanging bridge nearby, cross the river, and then wing it from there. Dad walked with us to the hanging bridge in order to see us off. But then he decided that he would come with us. At that point, we had walked for about 40 minutes. He still seemed relatively unfatigued, despite the fact that he was wearing a denim jacket and jeans—less than ideal clothing for hiking in hot, humid weather. But the best was yet to come…

Eleven minutes later. We came across two Papuan men heading in the opposite direction on the footpath we were taking. “Just walking around,” Pak Daniel explained. “Do you know if there’s anything in this direction?”

“There’s another bridge further away,” one of them offered. “A yellow bridge.”

My Dad interjected. “So how far away is the bridge?”

They paused and looked at each other before turning back to us. “Close. Pretty close.”

Dad asked again. “So about how far is it?”

They thought some more about it. “Far. Quite far.”

Dad: So how far is it?

Papuans: Maybe forty minutes or so.

Dad: Forty minutes?

Papuans: Or maybe 3 or 4 hours. More like 3 or 4 hours. It depends how fast you walk.

Dad: (whom I believe was trying to make it simpler for them to give an accurate answer) So is this bridge we’ve just come from further away or is the other bridge further away?

Papuans: (blank stares)

Dad: It’s taken us ten minutes to walk from this bridge to this point here. If you had to guess, how many times more is the distance from here to the yellow bridge?

Papuan 1: Sorry, can you repeat the question?

Dad: Is the distance from here to that yellow bridge four times as long? Ten times as long? Twenty times as long?

Papuan 2: Four times.

Papuan 1: No, maybe ten times.

Papuan 2: Maybe eight times.

Having complicated the question of distance beyond reparation, we decided that since we had all day anyway, we would just walk until we got to the yellow bridge, however far away it was.

1 hour later. We encounter more Papuans. We exchange greetings: “Selamat siang.” Dad asks, “How far to the bridge?” “Not far,” they answer. “Not that far.”

1 hour 20 minutes later. We encounter more Papuans. Dad asks, “How far to the bridge?” “It’s pretty far. But you’ll get there.”

1 hour 46 minutes later.
Papuan: Good afternoon. Dad: How far to the bridge?

2 hours 20 minutes later.
Papuan: Good afte—. Dad: How far to the bridge?

2 hours 30 minutes later. We rest for a while in a village green just outside their church. Two of the men come out to greet us and talk to us.
Papuan: Welcome to our village. This is our church. We’re Pentecostal and the—
Dad: How far to the bridge?

2 hours 45 minutes later.
Dad: How far to the bridge?
Papuan woman carrying firewood: See that hill over there in the distance? Just get to the hill and just beyond the hill you will be able to see the bridge.

3 hours later.
Papuan children happily gambolling along. They stop short, bemused at the sight of our party. A big, sweaty, Chinese man approaches them somewhat menacingly. He looks tired and irritable.
Dad: How far to the bridge?
Children silent and in shock.
Children promptly run away.

3 hours 30 minutes later.
We reach the bridge. We consume the fried rice we brought with us for lunch, and then walk another 30 minutes to get to the main road, where we begin waiting for a taxi.

A taxi in Wamena is not quite the same as a one might think of as a taxi in, say, New York City or Singapore or Shanghai. Those are first-world taxis. Taxis for the spoiled, sleek city-slickers of the globe. We were waiting for a third-world taxis—the vans so familiar in every developing region, loaded with as many passengers as possible. And so we waited. And waited. And waited. All of the taxis seemed to be heading in the opposite direction of Wamena, where we wanted to go. An old man carrying a bundle of firewood was waiting with us. “Sir, where are the taxis to Wamena?” From his position seated on the ground, emanating an air of infinite patience, he told us, “They will come. Around this time, there will be cars coming back from the villages to Wamena.”

And sure enough, vans began to pass us going in the direction of Wamena, loaded so full of passengers that some were hanging off the backs or seated on the top of the vehicles. After one and a half hours, we finally hailed a pick-up truck with three or four other passengers already in the back, and we headed back to the hotel.

The next day, we went hiking in the hills of Wamena. Dad’s new question of the day: “How far before the trail starts going downhill?”

I make fun of my dad a little here. But one thing was clear. He walked with us out of sheer love.

It's the Law. But for You We Might Make an Exception

Whatever people may say, there are laws in Indonesia. They're just overlooked from time to time when dealing with certain...special situations. "Special situations" meaning if one has enough money and finesse for a successful bribe.

My father, having lived in Indonesia for a very long time, is very used to bribing people. To him, it comes as a matter of course, is something which can't be avoided. And if the person-to-be-bribed offers the opportunity and is refused, might be so humiliated that he/she will proceed to make life even more difficult for one.

PM, who has grown up in the United States, is not a big fan of encouraging corruption. So imagine PM's dismay when, on our very first day in Papua, we had to bribe a local authority to give him a surat jalan--literally, "a letter of passage" which is required for foreigners travelling in certain parts of Indonesia which may or may not have sights or people that the government would rather not have foreigners see. In Papua, the government desires to cut off the possibility of foreign sympathy and aid for the Free Papua movement. The town where we first stopped in Papua--Wamena--is very close to the border between Papua New Guinea (the autonomous version of the Papua province in Indonesia) and the Papua province. Hence, all foreigners are required to obtain a surat jalan BEFORE arriving in Wamena.

A week before the trip, PM had already alerted us about the necessity for a surat jalan. "Don't I need to get one to go to Wamena?" he asked my father, who promptly dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. "Nah. You don't need a surat jalan."

"You need a surat jalan," a Papuan man at the airport told Justin. "Where is your surat jalan?" We were then ushered into a small office in the airport where a police official dealing with surat jalans was sitting at his desk.

"You don't have a surat jalan?" he asked in disbelief. He didn't seem to be angry. His bewilderment seemed...almost conversational.

My father responded with equal disbelief: He needs a surat jalan? We had no idea!"

Police Official: Yah. All foreigners need a surat jalan.

Dad: Huh. How about that. We didn't know.

Police Official: Hmm......What about for her? (Points at me.)

Dad: Oh. She has an identity card. She's an Indonesian citizen. (Actually, I am not an Indonesian citizen at all. Dad had obtained an identity card for me through illegal means prior to my arrival in Indonesia. In past years, he had also illegally obtained an Indonesian driver's license for me.)

Police Official: (turning his attention to Justin once again.) Hmmm. So, what now?

Dad: there...anyway to fix this problem? We really didn't know. (yeah, right.)

Police Official: could pay to have one made for you now.

Dad: We can do that?

Police Official: It will cost....100,000 rupiah. We'll need a photocopy of his passport and two passport-sized photos of him.

(PM, who has been looking slightly frustrated because he told Dad he needed a surat jalan but Dad didn't listen to him, pulls out the requisite materials. PM is always very prepared.)

Police Official: Good, good. We'll make one for him right away.

Dad: Actually, we don't need to wait here right? We'll just go to the hotel. Could you send the surat jalan there?

Police Official: Of course.

And that was how PM's surat jalan was hand-delivered to us in the hotel (not even in the the restaurant across from the hotel, where the messenger was somehow able to find us) for a fee of 100,000 rupiah. Talk about service! Albeit, corrupt service.

But in any case, that was not quite the end of our law-breaking adventures in Papua. We left Wamena three days later to head to Jayapura, the provincial capital of Papua, From the airport, we decided to stop by Tugu MacArthur , or Mount MacArthur--supposedly where General MacArthur sat and thought great thoughts while the Americans were there in WWII fighting the Japanese. It's supposed to have a great view. It is also the site of an Indonesian army base nowadays. We got past the security at the foot of the mountain, but when we got to the actual peak--the area where General MacArthur actually slept and ate and sat on his buttocks and thought great war thoughts--we found that the gates were chained and padlocked.

Anyone else would have been dissuaded and content to stare through the gates at the monument before getting back in the car and heading home. Not Pak Daniel.

"I bet we can get to it from the other side," Pak Daniel said, directing the driver to a path to the left of the locked gate. The driver stopped the car there, and we all got out for a little stroll, with my father, as usual, bringing up the rear.

"Are we supposed to be walking here?" I asked PM, as we heard gunshots being fired in the distance.

"Yeah, I don't think this is such a good idea," he responded.

Pak Daniel called to us from further down the path. "I think we can climb up this part here and get to the monument!"

And so PM and I followed him, like sheep, up the incline and toward the monument which was obviously supposed to be off-limits because the gates were chained and padlocked. As we did so, we could still hear the gunshots from the artillery range.

"So what did you do in Papua?" PM asked himself. "Oh, we wandered around an army base without permission at the risk of being shot."

Pak Daniel turned out to be right. We were able to reach the monument from behind. After admiring the view, the monument, and the various pieces of rubbish which had been left by the benches there, we returned to the spot where we left Dad.

"Where's your father?" Pak Daniel asked.

"Maybe he kept walking along the path," I suggested. We walked a little further along the path before I changed my mind. "Actually, knowing Dad, he probably went back to the car."

Sure enough, Dad was waiting at the car. "How come you didn't come with us?" I asked.

"Well, I thought that maybe if you got shot, then I could be near the car and beep the horn for help."

Stay tuned for the next installment: "The Two-Storey Air-conditioned Folly of Mankind"


At 4:43 PM, Anonymous anna said...

haha i love these stories! Please write more!



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