We Were Intrepid Today, Dad

July 16th, 2016: Jakarta day 2

This morning we navigate the Jakarta bus system back to Old Batavia and head off with stern warnings to one another to remember how to get back to our bus stop. Under the street and back through the market. Easy-peasy.

On one side of the square is the famous Cafe Batavia. You were here Dad, in this very cafe, and later in other canteens in Bandung where you saw a very white man with snow white hair in an impeccable white suit playing a cello. “He looked like death itself,” you said. “But then he played.”

It was the first cello you’d ever heard and you fell in love with that music. It gave you an escape from what you didn’t understand about the war you’d been sent to fight, gave you peace, especially when you closed your eyes and listened. Seventy years later you still remember the old man and the cello.

We sit at a table with our coffee and take it in while out the window there is a sudden deluge. People scatter from the busy square to stand under awnings and overhangs to wait it out while six inches of water turn the area into a swimming pool. Daredevil children laugh and wade in to swim and cool off. As quickly as the rain started it stops, the sun beams down, the square drains and the people resume their day. As do we.

Shadow puppets at the Wayang museum. In performance they are manoeuvred behind a screen by puppeteers to throw shadows of the intricately carved patterns as they act out long and detailed stories of Indonesian folklore.

In a place of such population density, you might assume a certain impatience with such interruptions. Instead I am struck by a seeming acceptance of inconveniences, a patience I struggle to possess for things not ideal but inevitable; rain, traffic, a flat tire. And amidst the throngs one might also assume indifference to others.

It is my mistake to think the people wary, imagining they don’t trust a belanda like me to engage in normal friendliness. Maybe it’s a prairie thing–the two fingered wave and all that–but I can’t not smile. And I discover that a smile given is a smile received, faces beaming back at me unguardeded, almost joyful. “Hallo” the people say, followed by instant offers of help we don’t need. Yet.

If you look closely you’ll see dates from the colonial years; 1653, 1684, 1720 and so on.

Outside the church that houses the Wayang Museum we find a nod to colonial missionary zeal in crypts subtley hidden and carved with the names of the dead. It’s a bit eerie, like the list on the wall and the existence of the church have nothing to do with one another. But I suppose at this point they don’t.

And then we walk, and walk, and walk, determined to get a closer look at the seven sailed masts of the famous Bugis pinisi boats we’ve heard about, their hulls appearing stacked against the docks in the distance.

You can’t be here.” Near Sunda Kelapa harbour

“You can’t be here,” a sailor in a hard hat says as he walks toward us. He looks very puzzled. Of course he does; we are two women in goofy hats, sweating profusely, faces and feet equally dirtied by the long walk. Perhaps the menacing signs on the chain link fence should have been warning enough. He is very kind; firm but kind. “You can’t be here.”

“But we’d like to see the harbour,” I say in a combination of the little Indonesian I tried to learn in the months before our trip, some stilted English and hand gestures. He laughs and tells us it is fifteen kilometers to the mouth of the harbour. “Oh.”

Still… although these boats are not in the actual harbour they are beautiful. I imagine the men who carry large drums and heavy sacks up a nearby plank might be stocking the ship with supplies for the next trip across the Java Sea to Sumatra or Flores or Kalimantan, or any of the other 17,000 islands that make up the archipelago.

We turn and walk and walk and walk, back to the old Kota area and the bus stop. Where is the bus stop? It’s over there in that roundabout thing below street level, but how do we get there? Shit, shit, shit. Tired but determined, I hike my skirt and step over a barrier designed to keep me safe, cross the insanely busy street and stand looking down at the bus terminal while cars whizz behind me.

A small van stops in the midst of the circling traffic below, a young man looking up at me confused. “What are you doing?” he hollers.

“The bus stop. How do we get to the bus stop?”

He gestures wildly to a spot behind me and down the street, mimics something by repeatedly plunging his left hand under his right forearm. He confers with his buddy. “Under, you go under,” he hollers.

“Oh yeah, we forgot,” I holler back.

He looks at me as though I am the most absurd human he’s ever seen. I likely am, standing in the middle of eight lanes of zipping traffic, gesticulating and hollering in English. But he shrugs and carries on. And so do we, back to the corner, under the street and through the market, just like we’d reminded one another when we set out on this day. Easy-peasy.

Later we lie in our bed in the weak air-conditioning of the guest house and laugh and laugh.

“What are you doing?” Wilma mimics, and we burst into giggles, the blisters on our feet and heat rash in our elbow creases momentarily forgotten.

We are only beginning to find out.

1.) Learning to Breathe in Jakarta

July 14th and 15th, 2016; Jakarta

Morning coffee at Jordi’s B and B before stepping out of the shade and into the Jakarta heat.

It is July in Indonesia—we were warned about the heat. It’s my job as a writer to describe things with as much attention to detail as possible; how things feel on the skin, taste on the tongue, sound in the ear. But I am at a loss to describe such heat. Oppressive is not quite word enough.

Jakarta proper has a population of over ten million, but the city flowing beyond swells that number to thirty. The city contains enough concrete and asphalt to support the numbers, but it also serves to intensify the sun’s determined work.

The heat in Jakarta is a living thing. Weighted by both humidity and pollution, the air stings our eyes and forms a sheen on our skin the instant we step outside our air conditioned guest house. But it is soon evident this is not sweat—that will most definitely come—but is instead the air attaching itself, the ethereal made heavy enough to reside there on the arms and neck and face. Mostly it steals your breath, is hard to exhale as though you are constantly trying to blow up a balloon, returning hot and heavy to burn your lungs on the inhale.

It doesn’t help that, near the canals, the smell of effluent assaults the nose, the detritus of this streaming humanity making its way into the rivers to spill into the ocean ports and drift into the world, or to stagnate exactly where it is.

You might think the air and water pollution a function of poverty, but that’s only partially the case. Indonesia is rich in oil reserves, coffee, tea, rubber, silver and the list goes on. It’s why first the Portuguese and then the Dutch colonized it over centuries, taking the resources first to line the pockets of merchants and governments, and then to rebuild after the war. The economy of post-colonial Indonesia has fared much better than most newly independent states.

Wilma on the steps of the building where Dad worked 75 years ago. I broke down in tears when I realized what I was looking at.

But like all countries, Indonesia is as complicated as its history, everything about it incongruous. On one side of an oily canal are sky-scraping high rises and Gucci malls that sneer over the corrugated tin shacks and street vendors on the other where men and women hawk wares from stalls no bigger than the length of their bodies.

In the Kota Tua area of old Batavia we climb galam wood staircases, sit at gorgeous single- slab teak tables and gawk at multi-tiered chandeliers, remnants of colonial grandeur in the buildings and shops. But we also watch a man up to his waist in the sludge of a nearby canal haul himself atop a flotilla of whatever his grapple can bring aboard, the flotsam of plastic and discarded junk he will sell as recycling to make money to feed his children.

Making a living.

Not quite comprehending, I snap a picture before recognizing how rude that is. But he smiles and waves and carries on. And why would he care what I think? There is a living to be made; always a living. A momentary shame at my judgment of such entrepreneurial and hard work. And yet…. I can’t help remark about the waste of good ideas and infrastructure this whole abandoned and filthy canal system represents.

The Dutch colonial architecture is crumbling and old, much like memory of that period. Independence in 1950 rightfully created an “Indonesia for the Indonesians”, the motto of the Pemuda guerrilla fighters. And while a display of ancient penis-holders of the Papuans reflect a certain virile vision of a lost culture, the history of Dutch rule is pretty much erased in the museums that now grace the Kota, as if by the stroke of Sukarno’s pen, or by bloodshed, or both, 300 years of colonialism has nothing to do with the current history of this nation.

At the National Museum of Indonesia

Maybe it doesn’t. Our guest house host, Jordi, tells me that the past is the past. “Tell your dad we are happy for our independence, but we hold no grudges.” Maybe it’s true. So much of their post-indpendence history has been marred by internal violence and blood-shed. Maybe it’s easier to lump it all together and put it in the past in order to move forward.

We walk through a bustling square, eat at a restaurant where we are served by a woman with the brightest of smiles and a lovely Javanese lilt in her voice, pass by flower and fish markets that exist alongside cell-phone and tech shops. Learn to breathe.

These are a people now in and of their own country and culture just as we are in and of Canada. They smile and are helpful and gracious to these middle-aged, blue- eyed Belanda melting into puddles on the pavement and asking after the whereabouts of the bus station. Of course they are. Why would I expect them to be otherwise?

The tiny hand of a child grasps and caresses mine, wondering at such white skin, such blue eyes. “Who are you?” the tiny hand asks. Surely you don’t mean to be here? This foreign thing. This colonial daughter. Surely you are lost.

Maybe I am.


I apologize for the delay in posting; after two and a half years of working to avoid it, covid has swept our home in the past two weeks. I alone remained standing:)

Adventurer and Sponge:

The Journey begins
Six years ago, in the hottest part of July, I traveled with my sister Wilma to Java Indonesia to research my recently released book What Is Written on the Tongue. From Jakarta in the west, we traveled eastward by plane, train and automobile to make our way through cities, towns, villages, rice paddies and jungle to end up on Bali just off the east coast of Java.
We thought we were ready.
YQR July 13th, 2016

I had a plan of sorts, related to the novel and what I ‘needed’ to see. But I had no clear idea how much of what we experienced would work for the story. Now that the book is out in the world, I look back on the trip with a kind of awe at what those five weeks actually gave to both the story and me personally. I think that’s how travel is for most of us most of the time; only on our return and with some distance and perspective do we truly see what we experienced and understand the impact on how we think. Or at least that’s true if one becomes an adventurer instead of a tourist, an experience- absorbent sponge instead of an onlooker. I think that over the course of the trip my sister and I became both, and that’s what matters most to me now.

The novel is finished but I hope that I will always be a work in progress. The trip showed me that it’s okay- even preferable- to wing it sometimes, to be afraid while not shying away, to learn from others without making excuses, to be given the gift of another’s world without judging it against my own.

I’ve traveled in the past and since, but Java was a truly transformational experience. In these next weeks I hope to unpack exactly how the people and places of Indonesia revealed my unconscious biases and the need to reckon with them, personal revelations I later brought to both the story line and process of writing the book. Only glimmers at first, these moments grew to wide flashes of understanding of my place as one human with a certain set of experiences and knowledge walking the world with other humans who possess their own. And how that translates into a writer’s approach to the words and to the story.

So…stay tuned; next time we’ll start in the heat and chaos of Jakarta.