Garuda is the Indonesian national airline, and the change in amenities it provided on the flight from Bangkok to Jakarta was a stark reminder that I, like Dorothy, wasn’t in Kansas anymore. My memories of that trip are like a stack of old photographs, the kind with the crenelated borders, slightly fuzzy in definition, but evocative of a time long passed. Jakarta airport didn’t possess any jetways at the time, and the wave of hot, moist air that hit me walking out the door of the plane was an immediate reminder of the fact that this place is in the tropics. Jeeps with machine guns manned by uniformed military escort the passengers into the customs building. Our luggage is lined up along a wall, and after claiming my suitcases, I am directed by a soldier to place them on a metal table. In preparation for my trip, I had been given some medications and used medical equipment to bring with me to the hospital where I would be working, as both are in short supply. I’d been given a special diplomatic Visa stamped in my passport by Care-Medico, as well as a letter from the Indonesian government identifying me, as well as the medical nature of my mission. The customs agent who searches my suitcase points to the items I’m carrying, and demands that I need to pay $500 U.S. dollars to bring the medicines and medical equipment into the country, or they will be confiscated. I show him the letter from his government, along with my visa, but he dismisses both, and begins to threaten me that if I keep being “difficult”, I will not be allowed to enter the country.
In one of those acts of divine providence, which my life has had plenty, my cousin in Chicago has a close family friend, Billy, who I also know, now working for a major American bank in Jakarta. He knew of my arrival, had come to the airport, and now comes walking into the customs area, having spotted my problem from the window outside. He has a brief conversation with the customs agent, reaches into his wallet, hands the man a couple of banknotes, then motions for me to get my things and follow him outside. Once we’re in the airport lobby, he explains that in Indonesia, everything works on the baksheesh (bribe) system. He gave the customs officer the equivalent of $20, in return for which I and my luggage were released. Had he not done this, I may eventually have gotten my stuff, but only months later, and possibly never. Billy had been working in the country for several years, and though he remained frustrated with the bureaucracy, inefficiency and corruption, he learned to work in the system. He had married an Indonesian woman, and lived in a very nice house, where I was his guest for the night, before flying out to Yogyakarta, a city in Java (the largest island) known for traditional arts and cultural heritage. There I was met by Barun, my Indonesian driver, who became invaluable to me both as a translator and as a guide to Indonesian culture. (I later learned that his name meant Lord of the Sea.) Our destination was Surakarta, called Solo by most locals, which was the historic royal capital of the island of Java. It is also a major center for dyed batik fabric, about which I learned more during my stay.
Even though we were far from the monsoon season, when it can rain for days, the humidity was close to 98%. It was the kind of the day, like most every day of my stay, when you can never wipe off all the sweat, and the buzzing of insects is the backdrop music of your life. The three lane road, labeled as the highway between the two cities, was filled with motorbikes, scooters, bicycles, as well carts pulled by various beasts of burden. Slower traffic moves in the outer lanes, while cars and buses speed down the center lane in both directions at 50 mph. A second before they crash into each other head on, one driver beeps his horn twice. (How it’s decided which one beeps I never learned.) The beep means he’s going through, so his opponent in the other vehicle swings abruptly into the outer stream, hopefully into an unoccupied space. Then, it’s back into the center lane until the next head on challenge. Barun saw the look of horror on my face, and smiled, “You’ll get used to this.” A few miles down the road, we passed the wreckage of a two car frontal collision at the side of the road. Obviously, not everyone had Barun’s driving skills or luck!
Houses along the roadside were built on stilts, with a platform on the outside shaded by woven palm fronds. The stilts kept the houses from being flooded during the monsoon rains, and provided some protection from animals and snakes. Curious children smiled and waved at us as we drove by. I was becoming impressed by the number of people we passed who seemed to have a perpetual smile. Barun , who spoke amiably in a soft voice, was a representative of the joie de vivre I was to encounter among most of the Indonesian people.
Originally called the Spice Islands by Dutch explorers, the rich volcanic soil of the islands made for fertile grounds for almost any plant. Drop a seed into the ground, and you’d soon have a grown plant in its place. Many of the volcanoes are still active, as evidenced by the plume of smoke I saw coming from one in the far distance. Farms, many growing tobacco, had been carved from the jungle. Besides its fertile lands capable of producing most crops, the country is also rich in natural resources, most notably oil. Were it not for deep rooted corruption and mismanagement, it has the potential of being one of the wealthiest countries in Southeast Asia. Having the largest Muslim population in the world, Indonesia also has a sizable number of Hindu and Buddhist followers, all whom coexisted peacefully in the 1970s. Ruled by the Dutch until 1954, Sukarno and his followers had been in power since. Many of the businesses were owned and run by the 5% Chinese minority in the country. After Sukarno, these businesses were confiscated by the government, and the keys turned over to Indonesians. However, the new owners lacked the drive, ambition, and in many cases, the education of the former Chinese owners, who were now reduced to working at the companies they formerly owned as employees. Due to mismanagement and lack of initiative by the Indonesian owners, in the space of 5-10 years, almost all the businesses were back in the hands of the former Chinese owners.
After an over two hour drive to cover 62 miles, I arrived with Barun in Solo, a city of about 300,000, though with more the appearance of a large village than major metropolis. Barun drove me to the bungalow that was to be my home for the next several months, and introduced me to the woman who was to be my housekeeper and cook. Built with cinder blocks, the place was sparse but clean. My room had a slow moving ceiling fan, a single bed that appeared to be a military cot, and a small wooden chest with two drawers. None of the doors had any locks, but the house was surrounded by a six foot wall, and there was a man with a rifle sitting at the gate, who was the assigned guard. (I later learned this had more due with my status as the honored visiting doctor than concern about my personal safety.) Several geckos were attached to the wall of my bedroom. I was informed that this was good luck, as they eat the bugs. I was cautioned to always look on the floor (after turning on the single overhead bulb by pulling its chain) to ensure I wasn’t about to step on a snake or one of the many VERY large biting insects. Barun showed me how to lite an insect coil at night, whose smoke was supposed to keep the bugs away. I found it worked more to give me headaches than as an effective insect repellent, so I stopped using them. Barun later confided that no one he knew used them either, but they made “white people” feel better.
I was introduced to the mindy, a large reservoir of water with a ladle in it. This was used to pour water over yourself, not as a tub for bathing, a faux pas made by a prior guest. There was no hot water, unless you boiled some in a pan. With the heat and humidity, this was not a desired form of relief. I soon learned that my housekeeper, who spoke very little English (or was too shy to talk with me) was an outstanding cook. The food I had, mostly consisting of seafood and rice, with a variety of delicious sauces (I wish I had gotten the recipes) was some of the most consistently enjoyable I’ve eaten in my life. Not as hot as Thai dishes, but with a definite kick to many of the sauces, my mouth still waters with the memories. Having properly settled me in, Barun left with a promise to pick me up in the morning, take me to the hospital, and introduce me to the staff and my soon to be students.
Next – My new colleagues and medicine in Indonesia.