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.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Chinese Princess in Papua and the Spice Islands, Continued!

All right, I know it’s been a really long time since I wrote the last installment recounting last summer’s travel-adventure extravaganza in Papua and the Spice Islands....nine months, to be shamefully precise. But applying for academic jobs and finishing my dissertation got in the way of more important writing funny things that people I know would actually enjoy reading, (not to mention watching back episodes of 30 Rock and giving myself at-home pedicures.) In any case, I’m back, I actually have a job (a post-doctoral fellowship at Georgia Tech in their School of Literature, Culture, and Communications), I have a diploma (or rather, it will be issued at some point in the summer), and I’m getting hitched (to PM) in October. A lot has happened! But I can’t leave you all hanging about what PM and I got ourselves into when we were traipsing around the Indonesian Archipelago! So, even though you may have forgotten entirely what I have recounted in parts 1-3, refresh your memory, or just plunge into these following installments unrefreshed! Here we go! And hopefully, I’ll get through our wacky adventures before next summer rolls around!

Part 4: The Two-Storey Air-Conditioned Folly of Mankind
We spent a total of three days in Jayapura (the capital city of Papua province), and in addition to breaking into Mount MacArthur (see Part 3):
-We drank fresh coconut juice next to the beautiful Danau Sentani (Lake Sentani). The beauty and blueness of the lake was, in fact, so stunning that my father and Pak Daniel kept complaining about the ugly shacks (i.e. people’s houses) by the lake which were ruining the view, and that if the government really wanted to attract tourists, they should get rid of them.

-We had lunch with an elderly (but still active) local journalist friend of my father’s and his...erh...companion, “C.P.”—a middle-aged woman with blonde-dyed hair who called him by the affectionate moniker, “Papi”, and who wore a lot of make-up, a very tight blouse, and very tiny shorts.

-We visited a little village called Depapre at the foot of the Cyclops Mountains and ran into an American missionary woman chillin’ with some Papuans and having a barbecue on a beach. At the sight of said American, PM felt excited at this chance to exchange salutations with a fellow American so far from the American shore, but she tried her best to ignore us (no easy feat, since Depapre isn’t exactly “tourist central”), and when my father tried to strike up conversation and ask where she was from, she gave a one-word answer: “Sentani” (the town just north of Lake Sentani). So much for connecting.

-We toured the meticulously arranged and preserved insect collections of a Dutch Catholic monk and entomologist named Brudder (Brother) Henck. ‘Twas Heaven for me, the entomologist wannabe. But as Sartre famously said, “Hell for others are meticulously arranged and preserved cabinets of insects.” (Of course, this quote from Sartre makes far more sense in its historical context: he actually uttered these words after he said, also famously, “They don’t cure bacon like they used to.”)

-We visited Koya, a transmigration site located very near the border between Papua province, which belongs to the state of Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea which is a separate state. Due to the Indonesian government’s fears that the separatist movement in Papua province, called ‘Free Papua”, will gain power and succeed in seceding, the government has set up a vigorous(?) transmigration programme in Papua. Essentially, the government offers ethnic Malays living in other areas of Indonesia (whose identity as Indonesians isn’t really under dispute) their own land, a house, and six months of food and supplies to move to Papua, settle down, and start a life for themselves there. For those who are poor enough to having nothing to lose, it’s not too bad of a deal! Most of the transmigrants use their government-given capital to set up shop, and thus, while the Papuans do most of the farming and fishing, the transmigrants have become the shopkeepers and businesspeople of the society—not unlike the Jews of Europe or the ethnic Chinese of Southeast Asia as a whole. Koya’s transmigrants were mostly from the island of Java, and had set up rows of roadside stalls selling boiled corn, boiled peanuts, watermelon, and miscellaneous vegetables. So we bought ourselves some corn, peanuts, and watermelon, ensconced ourselves on one of the thin wooden benches in the stalls, and watched the traffic go by...of which there wasn’t very much.

From Jayapura, we caught a plane and headed onto the last leg of our three-legged journeyings in Papua province: Biak—an island in the Western part of Papua province, relatively pristine, densely jungled, and therefore the ideal site to set up a timber company, which my family did indeed do around the late eighties or early nineties, before selling it to a Malaysian company. As my father was involved in setting up and running the company, (which explains why he spend a significant portion of my childhood away in Biak on business), our visit to Biak had a special sentimental significance to him: The timber company, he fondly reminisced, “was our baby. We gave birth to it, fed it, watched it grow...and then we had to sell it. Ah had its time. But we used to own this town,” he said, gesturing at the few old, scattered buildings which seemed to comprise the entirety of Biak. Pak Daniel, too, was getting nostalgic for the old days, even though he still lived in Biak and, in fact, was still working for the timber company now owned by the Malaysians who had sent him to jail to take the proverbial rap for their illegal activities, and who were still keeping him on the payroll in order to keep his mouth shut about the whole affair. Pak Daniel didn’t seem very happy with these unscrupulous Malaysians, whom he repeatedly told PM, were “stupid” and didn’t know how to run things properly. As he and my father talked about the golden days of the first timber company—where employer and employee (e.g. Dad and Pak Daniel) truly communicated with each other, aided each other in friendship, communed together late into the night, laughing and talking, in the company cafeteria, Ah! The days when men were men!—Pak Daniel’s eyes would frequently mist over with happy tears. But those days were gone. Biak, which had once been shiny and new...or at least, shinier and newer than it was now, was now beginning to rust and fall apart: as testified to by the replies my father received when he inquired about various restaurants and businesses.

Dad: What happened to that restaurant, [insert name here], which had really good seafood?
Driver: Oh. That burned down a few years ago. It’s a shame.
Dad: What about that bakery [insert name here]? Didn’t it used to be on this street?
Driver: Oh. The bakery first moved to [insert name of another street here]. Then the owner sold it to someone else. Then it caught fire and burned down.
Dad: What? That’s a shame. They made really good bread.
Driver: I know, Pak. It’s really a shame. This town just isn’t the same anymore.

The driver, who went by the name of Lembak, was a small, skinny guy with a mosutache and shaggy head of hair who also used to work for the timber company. It seemed that he made most of his money as a chauffeur and light errand-doer for a friend of my father’s who also worked for the timber company and still had a house in Biak, where we going to stay. PM and I couldn’t figure out, for the life of us, why so many businesses met their demise by fire.

“Want to see something really sad?” Dad asked us. “Let’s go to The Hotel...or what’s left of it, anyway.”

After I decided to entitle this installment, “The Two-Storey Air-Conditioned Folly of Mankind”, I realised that we actually encountered two Two-Storey Air-Conditioned Follies of Mankind while on Biak: The Hotel was the first of them. But to recount the story properly, we will have to travel backwards in time...the mysterious mystical mists of a point in history when the Papuan government had big plans to make Biak a hot, new tourist destination: the Bali of Papua, or as my father kept phrasing it, “The Golden Boy of Tourism”.

During the glory days of the timber company, around 1994 to 1995, my father had the chance to witness the rise and fall of a great tourism promotion campaign on Biak. Biak has many things going for it. As I’ve mentioned, it’s lush and green and relatively unspoilt by human civilisation. It is also located a short motor-boat ride away from the devastatingly gorgeous Padaido Islands with its devastatingly gorgeous coral reefs and tropical fishes and white sandy beaches. All these attributes made it ideal not only as the site of lucrative logging operations, but also, as the ultimate holiday destination. And so, with funding from the Papuan government and from the same business group who set up the fancy and expensive Nusadua resort in Bali, the grand four-star Hotel Marauw was built on Biak. Along with 200 air-conditioned rooms in a two-storey complex of luxuriousness (marble tiles, glass, ironwood pillars), it boasted tennis courts, a swimming pool, and a dock from which boats could set out for the Padaido Islands across the bay. It even boasted separate housing compounds for all the staff who had been imported especially to serve in the hotel.

At this stage, like the sharpest-tool-in-the-shed readers you are, you might be wondering where all the tourists for this hotel were going to come from. After all, in addition to being pristine and beautiful and etc., Biak is also somewhat difficult to get to if you’re a non-Indonesian speaking tourist trying to navigate the convolutions and inefficiency of local air travel. The Papuan government had thought this through, and the hotel’s opening was scheduled to coincide with Garuda Airlines’ establishment of a new flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu to Biak. Tourists, fresh from the plane, were to arrive at the Biak airport, and then be whisked to the Hotel Marauw Resort to enjoy fun in the sun and being waited on hand and foot in the tropical paradise that was Biak. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen.

The Garuda flight was up and running before the completion of the hotel, with the result tha tourists were arriving in Biak and wandering around the island without any accommodations or touristy things to do whatsoever. Hotel Marauw was pretty much the only hotel there was in Biak, and it hadn’t opened its doors yet. By the time the hotel got up and running, Garuda Airlines had lost too much money on this disastrous flight, and cancelled it. With no tourists to house or serve or entertain, the Hotel Marauw languished, died a slow death over the course of four years, and finally went out of business in 1998.

And there we were, in a car speeding towards the ten-year old ruins of the Hotel Marauw. Its grounds were so expansive it took us about 10 minutes from when our car first entered the grounds to get to the main building of the hotel. As we approached the building, we passed through large pillars and gateways proudly bidding guests a hearty “Welcome!” We stopped the car near the hotel and got out to take a closer look. “Like a carcass stripped by ants,” my father commented, chuckling grimly. Indeed, there was very little left of the hotel except its skeleton. Everything had been or was being taken: the floor tiles, the roof tiles, cross-sections of the ironwood pillars, the air-conditioning units, the plumbing pipes, the doors, the glass windowpanes, and now, people were hard at work with crowbars and hammers and various other implements taking the remainder of the pillars and the iron supports of the building-frame. A small concession stand was in operation at the threshold of the hotel where, one imagines, would have been the lobby where tourists would have been welcomed with drinks and garlands of flowers. The concession stand was selling drinks, snacks, and betel nuts to the people hard at work tearing the hotel down.

“Sad, huh?” My dad chuckled. Pak Daniel and Lembak too chuckled a bit. They seemed to derive at least some amusement from this disastrous business venture. “So much for the Golden Boy of Tourism. Ayo! Let’s go get lunch!”

Stay tuned for the next installment: “The Second Two-Storey Air-Conditioned Folly of Mankind!


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