To Touch the Earth

(In this time of pandemic, when travel seems a distant memory, I thought I’d share this piece (edited for length) I wrote last year for Freelance, a Publication of Saskatchewan Writers Guild)

Once upon a time, in a far-away land I knew nothing about….

Many of us write stories and poems set in unfamiliar cities or cultures, geographies, or climates. And many of these we can successfully imagine or research from the comfort of our home and computer. But if a writer’s work is set in a place truly foreign to them, travel might be considered an essential act of research.

The beauty of Prambanan Temple

It took a while to fully appreciate the impact of my trip to Java, Indonesia for the novel I recently finished. Loosely based on my dad’s time with Dutch forces in the East Indies at the end of the Second World War, the story explores the journey of a young man finally released from Nazi occupation only to be drafted and sent to reclaim the colony from an Indonesian Independence movement begun under Japanese occupation. Yes, it’s complicated. Yes, it’s taken months, or shall I admit, years, of research. And some enlightening travel.

With gratitude for Saskatchewan Arts Board funding, I embarked on a month-long wander of Java in the summer of 2016. I’d thought the novel was about two-thirds finished—how wrong I was.  Trip notes and photographs became reference points and memory aids. Add a few strokes of the colourful Bahasa Indonesia I’d learned, and the story came alive, burgeoning with the sights and sounds of cities drenched in history and heat, the dense smells of the jungle, the sing-song of Javanese voices, and the cultural nuances of a place imbued with river myth and temple story. Setting and characters, themes and plot—the impacts were enormous.

A fish market in Surabaya

Up until the trip, I’d thought myself a bit of a fraud trying to write the story without having set foot in the country. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with sensory and cultural information. How to use it? How to keep it from overwhelming the story? The joy at having a foreign world opened up to me, became the challenge of deciphering the copious notes I’d taken, choosing which experiences were relevant to the story, and capturing it all in words. Turns out, the challenge was not unique to me.

When Man Booker-nominated author, Alison Pick, started research for her novel, Strangers with the Same Dream, she started where we all do. “I’m a big believer in the internet,” she says. “But it doesn’t give you the colour of the light, the landscape, and geography. It doesn’t allow you to feel the setting of one hundred years ago. I was given a sense of context to be physically in the setting and to have a visceral reaction to it.”

For her book about Jewish pioneers trying to create a utopian kibbutz , a communal settlement in what would later become Israel, Pick explored letters and diaries found in the archives at Kibbutz Ein Harod in Israel where she traveled several times over two and a half years, on a Chalmers Arts Fellowship.

“I was less the stereotype of an artist who is inspired by the place. My trip was more clinical and fact-finding,” she says. Pick spent the bulk of her time with a translator who helped her to sort through mostly unpublished documents. “I came away with a sense of the emotional tenor, the atmosphere of the time and place… I was able to inform the fictional characters with real events and people.”

Yes, yes, and yes; my experience too. But unlike me, Pick went to Israel early in the project. She believes the ideal time for travel research depends on what the book is and what the writer is looking for, but going earlier is likely better.

I’m of two minds on that one. Because I’d written so much of the book I knew exactly what I needed/wanted to see when I went to Indonesia, and planned accordingly, visiting cities important to the history I was trying to portray—a colonial-style coffee plantation, the jungle. But had I gone earlier, perhaps I’d have been more open to experiences I hadn’t anticipated or wasn’t looking for that might have impacted the plot itself.  Hindsight, gift, or curse?

Because poets do things differently, I thought I’d asked Saskatchewan’s own Tracy Hamon for her thoughts on travel research. Her 2014 book of poems, Red Curls, follows the life and work of Austrian artist Egon Schiele and his relationship with mistress/model Valerie Neuzil. A little more than a third into the writing, she traveled to Austria and the Czech Republic to see what inspired Schiele’s work.

Hamon explored museums, galleries, and art centers. In Vienna and Czesky Krumlov she walked past the exact scenes recorded in Schiele’s paintings, wandered Tulln where he grew up and his father worked the trains, retraced the artist’s steps to where he’d watched his orphan muses or enjoyed the gardens.

“It wasn’t just about the artwork and responding to it. I grew weary of that and started responding to the places he lived and the sights he’d painted, their texture and atmosphere,” she says. “I don’t think I could have finished that book and given it what it needed if I hadn’t gone there. I didn’t have the vision of the book and that trip helped me to shape the manuscript into what it became.”

The EloProgo River near Borobudur

While I didn’t have access to much Indonesian archival material, I could imagine the historical drama by paying attention to the Javanese people, how they reacted to the Belanda,who’d come to visit (I am a Canadian child of Dutch immigrants) and by asking myself questions about my own biases and assumptions. I vividly recall watching a toddler sit in the shade of bamboo and teak, looking out over a tumbling river as he gummed the banana his mother gave him. And I wondered at the impact of the jungle on his future world view. How different from my novel’s protagonist, raised by the streetcar’s bell and tick of a clock. Why, at first, was the muezzin’s 5:00 a.m. call to prayer annoying, and then hauntingly beautiful only after I’d met those who rose at dawn to pray? Why did I initially assume my host uneducated or the batik seller poor, neither of which were true?

These are hard questions – sometimes mortifying – but necessary questions. As Alain De Botton writes in The Art of Travel, “A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making its first appearance: that I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.”

In order to build a plausible plot and believable characters, a writer needs to know as much about the angle from which their writing comes as what they are writing about. And that, perhaps, was the biggest lesson of my travel; to see things as they were, not how I imagined them to be. That, and just how god-like and angry a rumbling volcano can sound when one is perched at its lip looking down into its cavernous sulfur-belching mouth. But I digress.

And there’s another tip. Not everything you see or experience will be useful to your writing. It can’t be. “Your main allegiance is to the book,” says Pick. “So that may mean not including every person or place or event from your travels. You might think you have to tell it exactly as it was. But you should be more pre-occupied with how the material serves the story.”

So important; serve the story. My volcano experience was astounding, but, try as I might, I couldn’t find a place for it in the novel. Another darling killed.

Despite different intentions, different approaches, different outcomes, all three writers  agree we could not have written the same book, captured the places and people, imagined the stories and poems without having touched the earth where our characters walked. Well-planned travel, approached with an open mind and attention to the needs of the story, is truly a gift to yourself and your work as a writer.  

How else could I have found words to describe the doors of warehouses yawning open over the sewage filled canals in the port of Surabaya. Or pillars of sky-blue barrels and bamboo baskets waiting to be filled with fish for the market. Or the intelligent eyes of a woman crouched in a narrow street shaving coconut into a basket and surrounded by stalks of pungent lemongrass and brightly colored peppers. I don’t feel like a fraud anymore, my words given a little authenticity because I was there too.

What the Volcano Knows

The volcano knows I am hot and tired. And it knows I am afraid. This grumbling thing, spewing smoke thick as winter fog, its sulfurous gases stinging my eyes and burning my nose. But it knows too, that in spite of my fear, I am drawn to follow the path scarred into the gray rock by its ancient molten lava, behind us clouds hanging low over the valley, ahead a steep incline to its fiery lip. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The “Sea of Sand”

I didn’t start out so determined. But look at it there in the distance. Mount Bromo. How could a person resist walking across the Lautan Pasir, that ‘Sea of Sand’ stretching from its base? The cauldron- like expanse contains a number of active and dead volcanic mountains, only a few jeep tracks and scrubby shrubs to break it up.

The volcano wizards stop tourists at the nearby mountain village of Cemoro Lawang if the science says an eruption is imminent. Or so we’re told. But my sister and I, self-described intrepid Canadian dorks, see only Tenggerese horsemen with their small hardy mounts offering us a ride we must surely want. And jeep owners peering seductively over their knockoff Ray-bans tempting us to roar off with them.

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Tenggerese horsemen

Not easily seduced by men in balaclavas (protection from the sulfur and dust), we choose the forty-five minute walk. Down the steep grade of a hill shaded by jungle trees, down and down and out onto the sun-baked lava sea where a lone man schilling peanuts and lizard-skinned salak fruit makes his way toward us, smiling broadly and encouraging us to buy his wares. Wilma dubs him the Bedouin peanut man, and we walk, our clothes and skin darkening with the fine ash kicked up by an increasing wind. The salak is a surprising blend; firm like apple, sweet like coconut.

Salak fruit

It’s hard to describe such a place. Desolate, beautiful, stark, impressive; a scene of intensity, a record of the power of the elements. There’s a reason the volcano is considered a god to many Javanese who still make annual pilgrimages to throw offerings of flowers, and rice, plastic garlands and hand written poems into the mouth of the beast.

Looking back

And no mistake, Bromo sounds like a beast. As we approach its base, the low grumbling becomes a freight train’s roar, now distant, now near, a great belching and then a murmur. Alive. And perhaps not too happy about it. It gives us pause, but we are here, we can’t stop, the last thirty meters an incline so steep we haul ourselves up by clinging to a handrail built alongside stone steps slippery with years of ash and feet.

And the summit. A small rail reaches only to the knees, one slip and we’d tumble into the yellow crater, its mouth an abyss deep into the earth. I am stunned out of fear by its raw beauty; the power, the sound, the force of it. But somehow, despite all its intensity, it no longer feels malevolent. Looking down into the bowels of the earth, I recognize Mount Bromo has no agenda, no desires, no need for our adoration or worhsip. It just is. And I am. Puny beside its growling immensity, but less afraid because none of it is personal. It knows nothing of me, cares less. I am simply irrelevant, a fact that becomes strangely comforting, instantly humbling. And that, perhaps, is the only thing both the volcano and I will ever need to know.

Back from the Brink

The De-Segregated Dead

In the summer of 2016 I traveled to Indonesia with my sister to research a novel, and found my dad’s dead brother. His name was Peter Hubertus Groenen back when he was a kid in Holland. Then the Franciscans got hold of him and he became Father Cletus, renowned Dutch theologian, linguist and teacher who dedicated himself to the people of Indonesia, the country in which he would finish out his years. Back in the ‘60s when he was translating the bible into the now obsolete traditional languages of West Java, I’ll bet Uncle Cletus never thought his Catholic soul would end up resting alongside Buddhist and Hindu, Muslim and Protestant, a sprinkling of the faithful sharing this earthly soil.

I met Uncle Cletus when I was a child. He’d come to see the life my dad was carving out for his family in far-off Canada. But he seemed mostly bewildered by our house of seven girls and women, the place strewn with female paraphernalia we didn’t recognize as making anyone uncomfortable. Uncle Cletus did try. Bought me a ‘Winnie the Pooh’ piano book. My parents had suggested I was musical, but neglected to say I had only a chord organ and no lessons. Full-scale Pooh concertos were akin to hieroglyphs. But you have to appreciate someone who would try like that.

His efforts made it so much worse that I thought he was a freak. There he stood at the altar in my Canadian church, tall and hungry-looking with pious prayer hands, narrow face dwarfed by enormous square- framed glasses, earth-brown robe cinched at the waist by a corded white rope, and sandals on his feet. Quite a sight in our little prairie church. He stood alongside our regular Canadian priest who wore normal white robes and proper leather shoes. And me all of ten, painfully aware of the reaction of my friends; they all thought the guy was a nut job.

He was, in his way; worked himself nearly to death writing theological treatise about the West’s responsibility to help the poor and suffering of the Indies, while translating the bible for people who within a decade would mostly abandon it for the Koran. The man barely ate, smoked like a steamer and wandered with his head firmly entrenched in contemplation of the big questions. Impatient with human weakness and its manifestation in the world, he was a bit of a radical, and his students loved him for it. Not a nut job then; only eccentric.

Gerardus Theodorus Johannes Groenen (Dad)

Forty years after that visit, I found myself on a quest to find his grave. My dad knew we were headed to Indonesia so I could research, but suggested we might look for the grave, take a photo. He knew his brother was buried in Depok, a commuter city south of Jakarta. We’d be nearby, perhaps we could make time? Dad cocked his 92 year old head of thinning white hair, searching our faces with cataract- tinged blue eyes as he leaned more heavily into his cane. He knows how to get what he wants.

The first days of the trip were spent navigating the crazy stew of Jakarta where remnants of colonial grandeur compete with nose clogging pollution that hangs over sludge filled canals. Skyscrapers and Gucci outlets tower over tin- clad shacks clustered on streets laced with eight inch deep gutters running with sewage and plump rats. Incongruous. Fascinating. Jordi, our bed and breakfast host, lives as a Christian in a largely Islamic nation. Intrigued by the story of Uncle Cletus, he thought a moment, and called Mister Zul.

Zul arrived driving a small black SUV and wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, small wire reading glasses perched on his wide nose. Tall and gregarious, good humour sparkled in Zul’s eye as he assured us that we could easily detour through Depok on the way to Bandung. He would find our uncle. We had no idea what we were asking. And if he knew what he was getting into, he didn’t let on as he loaded our bags and introduced his wife. A darkly beautiful woman with wide set eyes, Fatil was stylish and perfectly coiffed. In the backseat, our sweat- wrinkled menopausal selves watched in awe as the couple up front held hands, smiling fondly at one another and conversing quietly in Bahasa Indonesia when they weren’t pointing out the sights in perfect English.

It turned out the whole of Java was on the road, off to celebrate the end of Ramadan with relatives. Two lanes of traffic become four with motorbikes and becek taxis dodging between cars and pedestrians hoisting baskets and bags. Hawkers added to the mayhem, selling everything from deep-fried noodle balls to wood carvings of long red chilies with an uncomfortable resemblance to spicy dildos. Depok is about 50 kilometers from Jakarta. It took two hours to get there.

When Uncle Cletus died in Depok twenty-five years ago it was a small city. Today’s population is almost two million. And all we had was a name. I learned something about the Javanese that day – they will go to any length to ensure that what one is promised is delivered, even if the promise is virtually un-deliverable.

Fatil punched away at her cell phone and Google maps delivered three potential locations. Like men everywhere Zul questioned his wife’s veracity, trusting instead a skinny man in undershorts pouring water over his head from a makeshift bucket shower. The man in undershorts did direct us to a Catholic cemetery where a fully-clothed fat man sat in the shade watching over a tumble of tombstones of assorted shapes and colours. Verdant green fronds of things waved from between their crumbling stone edges.  Catholics, yes. Priests, no. Undershorts man was wrong. And Fatil was right. Hadn’t she said so? She punched Zul lightly on the arm as we maneuvered back to a main thoroughfare and found our way.

Whether optimistic or delusional, Zul navigated his SUV through streets so narrow you couldn’t open a door without hitting a house, and around corners so tight he was forced to back blindly out of them inches at a time. Three cemeteries, a lot of driving, asking and wandering, and we were stumped, tired and hot. I tried not to picture my dad’s disappointment. What I didn’t expect was Zul and Fatil’s.


“Mr.” Zul

“One more try,” they said. I breathed deep; one more try. But first, lunch. The SUV snaked its way to a restaurant where Fatil hurried away.

“She wants to pray.” Zul waved toward his wife who pulled a taupe headscarf from her purse and disappeared into a mushola, the prayer rooms of every size and shape found across Java. “I’m more of an atheist,” he said, putting yet another cigarette to his lips and wandering off to smoke.

I hadn’t thought what Fatil’s faith might be. Ninety-eight percent claim Islam as their religion, but Indonesia is a secular country and its women evince wholly independent expressions of their faith; from buttoned right up, to jeans with a headscarf, to those impossible to differentiate from a baptized and back-slid Canadian Catholic. The whole of Indonesian culture is infused with centuries of fragmented traditions. And their faiths are as well; a Hindu might set out offerings to ward off black magic, a Muslim burn incense as homage to local spirits, or a Christian consult a shaman.

Looking out from the restaurant patio at a volcano puffing over the fog-filled valley, I thought Uncle Cletus would be happy with this melding. Despite years of work, he’d willingly given up on Catholic translations of the bible to make way for a kind of ecumenical cooperation. My dad always said his brother’s deepest calling was to enhance the dignity of the person and to foster peace. It seemed to me the babel of language and tradition and religion I saw in West Java was a kind of cultural ecumenicalism of which he would approve.

Fatil’s prayer over, we ate a lunch of sambal-flamed bakso ayam soup tempered by sticky rice and were on our way. One more try. Up and away on a mountain plateau edged by jungle, we drove into a cemetery stretching far as the eye could see, arched green trellises gracing the entrance to each section. Catholic, Buddhist, Protestant, Muslim. Organized. Neat. Tall teak trees shaded small flowered shrubs, bamboo thickets whispering in the wind. Peaceful and green and lovely. A rope- thin old man in flip-flops and crushed ball cap led us down wide shaded paths, stopping to point reverently at a dozen graves in a walled corner.

 And there it was. In a fateful vortex, the 17,000 islands of the Indonesian archipelago whorled in toward this one island, Java, with its press of millions, to this cemetery of a few hundred departed souls, to this one grave. His life was a droplet in the spray of Indonesia’s long and sometimes sordid history, but my Uncle Cletus’ work and life obviously mattered to whoever laid him to rest in that lovely shaded spot, his grave framed and adorned with polished black marble and white rock.

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Note the name should read Pieter Hubertus.

With help from Christian, atheist, and Muslim, two Canadian women found the grave of a Dutch Franciscan in the heart of Islam. Who would have thought? Each body there was buried according to religion, but in that moment I imagined their souls woven together into the Indonesian fabric, a common blend of culture and tradition and faith. I pictured them answering the muezzin’s call or the church bell, the smell of incense or a mudras gesture, the dead released from their segregation to share a drink and shake their heads at the foibles of the living. And my Uncle Cletus wandering happily amongst them.

Me and my sister were jubilant. And Zul hugged me hard, the tears in his eyes as real as my own. Unable to speak, I could only nod in gratitude for his efforts. When my vision cleared, I took a picture of the grave to carry home to my dad, proof that his brother rests easy.

(Many thanks to the Saskatchewan Arts Board who funded my travel research)