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.

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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.

Saved from Sack and Ashes

Imagine young Dutch men packed into a rail car for transport to a Nazi labour camp in the last year of World War II. On top of the horrific conditions, the Allies are bombing the tracks and the men cower and pray until their terror becomes anger directed at one another – elbowing, cursing, blaming.

Then picture a young priest with flaming red hair who hollers, “Enough praying, let’s sing.” And he does, not hymns as one might expect, but bar songs, drinking songs. And the men become a chorus.

The Canadian tenors singing Peit Hein in Holland

My dad, eighteen and scared to death, was on that train. “We sang like our life depended on it,” he says. Maybe it did. The song he remembers singing was Piet Hein, a favorite folk song of the Dutch then and now.

The men sang as the bombing stopped and the cover over the train was thrown back. They sang though German guards hollered at them to stop. They sang until an emaciated Jewish man in the corner was dead and the train had reached its destination, the men prodded out to blink in the sudden sunlight. Only when their eyes cleared and their new reality hit them did their voices fade. But the priest kept singing. And the guards were angry. The priest was from my dad’s hometown and was never seen again. It was a folk song. It wasn’t high art. It was hardly worth dying for. But of course it wasn’t about the song.

Dad

“He saved us from sack and ashes,” my dad says.

The mythology of the song and the unifying power of shared voices saved the men from succumbing to their base animal instincts, allowing Dad and the others to walk into the camp as men; prisoners yes, but still men. Perhaps the priest knew they would which is, of course, why the Nazis killed him.

Dad survived internment and forced labour and a long walk home from Germany at the end of the war, but he remains incredulous at the courage of the singing priest on the train, Dad’s gratitude evident in the tears that spring to his eyes at the memory.

And now, at 96, it is the plight of others that makes him weep, the unfathomable truth that what he and so many millions endured almost 80 years ago can be happening again, a sovereign European nation invaded, its cities destroyed and it’s people killed and displaced.

On the phone we discuss the courage of Zelensky and the Ukrainian people, talk about the solidarity of western countries around sanctions and other measures, the ways in which Putin is being isolated. These are what we can do from afar, they give us a sense that the world is engaged in a way not seen since those dark days of World War II.

But I also remind Dad of the train to the labour camp and wonder if, like the folk songs the priest encouraged, it is the songs of Ukraine that help steady its people’s resolve. The Ukrainian anthem now sung in solidarity around the world; the violinist playing in the center of a bombed square in Kharkiv; the Kyiv-Classic Symphony Orchestra gathered in Independence Square to play Beetholven’s Ode to Joy as Russian forces advance — all of them are a display of a collective defiance, a choice to be more than the suffering of war, to recognize what is beautiful about being human.

The songs won’t end the war. They won’t bring back the dead or heal the wounded. They won’t rebuild cities. But if nothing else comes of this terrible, terrible war, perhaps we are being forced to recalibrate our appreciations, to recognize what is best about being human, to come together in a kind of unconscious knowing that there is still beautfy to be found in the world and one another. That while bearing witness to the suffering we can still see how the simplest moments of grace give us all the courage to hope.