Indonesia and Me

Northern Sumatra WomanLiving in the United States I feel far removed from the hectic pace and stunning beauty of Asia; especially Indonesia. I shouldn’t complain, I see this more as an observation of the grass being greener since the US has been very good to me but whenever I return to the archipelago of the Indonesian islands I feel a sense of home.

It would be easy to dismiss and say that it’s because New Zealand is so close, I am a Kiwi, but it is a feeling that transcends geographic boundaries and falls more squarely on the proverbial nails head of spiritual connection.

Before I lose you and you begin to wander down the path called “What the Hell is He Talking About” let me reign you back in and explain myself.

Growing up I was not completely unaware that my family, on Mum’s side, had lived in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) nor was I completely unaware that they had lived in Holland for a period. What I failed to grasp however was the importance of the story and the significance such a heritage would, and should, play on the way I see the world. 

Also, I did not, at a young age, understand where the Indies was or why Mum missed it so much. It was kind of a mythical place that didn’t even exist in the current world.

To a young mind that deemed it irrelevant.

It was easy to be dismissive of the subject because in our house the subject of life in the Indies bordered on taboo. Whether that was a conscious decision on Mum’s part or one brought on by an under-lying sense of self-preservation I am not sure.

Maybe it was brought on by a powerful instinct to protect her children from insights into an era that ended on a note less than perfect; a note that, through her eyes as a sheltered teenager, made little sense. From a period fondly remembered as Tempo Doeloe to a time of war, imprisonment, and death, this era in history is unfamiliar to most everyone, everywhere.

A wealth of knowledge lay at my disposal in the form of firsthand accounts that I had not tapped into. With the birth of my niece and a sense of newly acquired posterity that would all change and over time alter the course of my life.

In my early 20’s I had set my sights on seeing the world and following in the footsteps of my siblings. My brother had embarked on the same quest to see the world six years earlier and in a very “Legends of the Fall” kind of way had disappeared and stepped into a world of adventure; leaving my imagination to fill in the blanks.

As a sixteen year old I remember clearly a conversation I had with a friend where I explained how life for me was going to really start in my 20’s; that was to be when my adventure would begin.

It did…

First stop was L.A. and I will never forget the feeling of being a completely novice traveler enveloped by a huge unknown city; cloaked for the first time in the impervious freedom of naiveté.

I traveled by bus across the U.S., passing through California, Nevada, Texas, Florida, the Carolina’s and others, eventually skirting Hoboken, into New York, and onto the island of the Big Apple.

After being transported to Europe and spending the next few years guiding myself and others around destinations familiar to us all I reached further afield and headed to South America; spending months hopping from one Latin country to another. Finally getting to a point where I could understand enough Spanish to get by.

It was at this stage that I entered Brazil.

Given the difference between Spanish and Portuguese, let alone bad Spanish with a Kiwi accent, I once again entered the ranks of the completely misunderstood.

By the time the 90’s rolled in I had been curious enough, and lucky enough, to have visited dozens of countries spanning every continent except Antarctica. I had visited all these countries only once and even though I had my heart set on a return to Brazil, it would be a long time coming.

In the meantime I took a five-week jaunt through Indonesia starting in Jakarta and making my way slowly to the island of Komodo. I could insert a story here about the winding bus ride through the misty rain-soaked mountains of Sumbawa where 90% of the passengers regurgitated their latest meal into the center aisle. A story about how with every hair-pin turn the slosh of water-logged second-hand food swept from one end of the bus to the other…but I won’t.

I spent my days in Jakarta and Bandung visiting all the sites without the slightest thought that my mother may once have walked these same streets, eaten in these same café’s, or marveled at the same landmarks. I gave no thought that places like Merdeka Square may have once played an important role in her weekly routine. I did not think that where I rested my head at night may be within shouting distance of where she and her sisters had done the same thing many years before me.

The fascination with my heritage had not yet taken hold.

Over the course of the 90’s I visited Indonesia 14 times and began to feel a sense of home about the country. Upon arriving I felt whatever weight of the world I was carrying, slip away. My priorities would reshuffle and the lens in which I view life sharpen and focus almost immediately. Something about Indonesia was in my blood and I slowly began to figure it out.

On a trip back to New Zealand in 2001, Mum and I were looking over photos of my first journey to Indonesia. She began to open up about her life in the Indies. It became apparent that my connection with Indonesia was more than simply fascination with its beauty and culture; it was in my blood, under my skin, buried deep inside. It was part of her and therefore part of me.

As we looked at photos, Mum’s eyes sparkled as she recognized places prominent in her youth. She would tell me stories of strolls around the Koningsplein (now Merdeka Square) every Sunday before church. She smiled as she talked about confessions told at the Cathedral; a child’s confession mostly told through fear of having nothing of real importance to confess.

Another photo; Willemskerk. Now one of the oldest churches in Jakarta. Another captured St. Ursula’s where both Mum and one of my Aunts attended high school, and another that captured a row of houses on the street where I had stayed. I pointed out my hotel, she pointed out her post-war house. If I had stayed there 60 years earlier we would have been neighbors.

A year later Mum, my Aunt, sister, niece, and me took a trip together to Bali. Armed with video and audio equipment I spent my evenings interviewing my Aunt and Mum asking them to tell me about the good days; the days where life in Indonesia for them was an incredible adventure. The days prior to war and hardship.

Over the course of our 15 nights together I amassed hours and hours of video footage with my Aunt and Mum batting around stories and memories as each comment instigated a new memory from the other. The stories came to life, became animated and full of color. As they spoke their faces would light up and laughter became the thread of each evening.

By the time March of 1942 rolled around there was no stopping the stories and no stopping the laughter. If there is one single thing I took from listening to the two of them it was that a sunny disposition and a smile on your face can help you get through any situation.

One of the comments I remember most vividly is, “I think we got in more trouble because even when we were being punished and made to work hard, we would laugh about something. The guards hated that.”

Being a witness to this, and recording it, is one of those times I now treasure and would recommend everyone make an attempt to do the same.

I returned to Indonesia the following year fully armed with recording devices; this time with a fire and passion to understand what happened and why.  I had spent the year reading and studying books, magazines, and reports. I read personal accounts, political essays, historical novels, and newspaper clippings from all over the world. I had immersed myself in information and became a loner as the subject took over my life.

That summer is pretty much a blur to me.

I journeyed back to Java to re-live as much as possible the life my family had lived. I visited their houses (ate a meal in every one – yes, I was invited), the schools they were educated in, the hospital my youngest aunt was born in, and the camps in which they were interned.

With old black and white photos in hand doors were opened up to me that I never expected. People welcomed me and in some cases groups gathered and wanted to hear me talk about what I was doing. In other cases no-one but me spoke English; they wanted to see the photos and eventually found a young Indonesian who could act as interpreter.

Finding the streets and houses was not difficult. I simply took an old map and over-laid it on a modern map. Many of the streets have simply changed from Weg to Jalan with the name staying pretty much the same. For example Bimaweg is now Jalan Bima. The railway still runs on the same tracks so whenever I had difficulty locating a place I looked for the nearest railway track or station and went from there. With all the modernization and congestion I was surprised how easy it was to pinpoint a location.

The trip was successful in more ways than one. I have become infinitely more familiar with the surroundings of my mother’s youth and with that a perceived understanding of life during those times. I have a deeper appreciation for the country, its people, and its history.

Now, not only is it part of me but I understand why.

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33 thoughts on “Indonesia and Me

  1. What a fascinating read, really enjoyed! Reminded me how much I want to explore my father’s roots in Assam India. I heard so many stories of him and his siblings growing up there. They still speak a different dialect amongst themselves, part bengali part assamese. Hope I get to do it sometime in the near future. Great story, lovely pictures 🙂

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  2. Amazing story, Tim! I am pretty sure it felt really good inside to be in the place where your mom grew up. I know I am a true blue Filipino, however, my paternal grandfather always told me he was part Portuguese (he was tall, fair skinned and had an aquiline nose). My mom said her dad had Spanish blood, (he was tall, had brown curly hair and brown eyes). It is sad though that I may never be able to discover my roots.

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  3. I loved reading this Tim, I feel like I’ve started to read your story from the beginning, after being so interested in the stories from the middle all this time. It’s great! That is such a fantastic idea to record your mother and aunt, and to get so much footage. It must have been amazing for you and your mother to look at photos of the familiar places you had both been to, years apart. 🙂

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    1. It is definitely something I am very grateful for. One of my next big projects is to get all that footage into a documentary format with narration and stills etc. Thanks as always for reading. I really appreciate that and your comments.

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  4. The words “where ever I lay my head, that’s my home” rang as I read. So it runs in the family, the craving for the world? So would Indonesia be your favorite then out of all your travels?

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  5. Look at those great old photos! It’s amazing how compelling they are, and how much they obviously mean to your family, especially your mother. Not only is it commendable that you took the time to get to know and understand your mother, but all the travelling you did – first on your own, and then with her. I’m sure it lifted a huge burden, and even shed light on your own experiences growing up. Good for you!

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  6. Seems home is not necessarily where your body happens to be sitting. Good post Tim. Interesting to hear how you found your way to Indonesia. But I don’t think I’d ever take a bus that you suggested. As I recall there was pretty awful bus ride in Brazil as well.

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  7. You are so fortunate to not only be able to do the traveling you have done but understanding who you are and where you are from is amazing. We all came from somewhere and few of us are able to visit our heritage

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  8. I absolutely love this Tim! I can see the driving force that pushed you to discover part of your heritage. Not many people would have had the courage to pursue that, with that kind of unknown, mainly because of the different languages and cultural differences. Given the same thing, I think I would done what you did. Family is important, understanding our past heritage as much so. 🙂

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  9. What a beautiful story! You make the experiences seem so real. I can imagine being you at each stage. I especially loved the part when you started getting your mom to share her memories and then you and she had some very special times together.

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  10. Tim, how nice that you took the opportunity to ask the questions and record your mom and aunt’s growing up in Indonesia. When we are young, it doesn’t matter to us, later we become so involved with our own lives that we don’t even think about it – only much later do we think ‘why didn’t I take the time to find out what life was like for them growing up. I’m so glad you did – those are memories you’ll cherish forever. Thanks for giving us a glimpse.
    Lenie

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  11. Your mother’s stories seem to have a great impact on you. As always you talk about her shows that she was an intelligent women who knew how to have an everlasting effect on others.
    It also seems that you miss her so much. The way you are travelling I feel someday you will go to Antarctica too. As it will be last place left on earth to visit. Your family seems to be fond of travelling and they are all amazing.
    It is nice to know that you were welcomed by many people, visited so many placed where your family lived and it is always nice to see pictures. You were curious about things and people were too to know what you are actually doing.
    How things change over time as you have checked street and places by comparing old and new maps..
    It was nice to know that the trip was a success and you have found a lot that is good for you.
    Happy travelling Tim.

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  12. “…a sunny disposition and a smile on your face can help you get through any situation.”

    How true, Tim!

    It’s nice to hear how you came to love your heritage so much. The stories your mom shared with you seemed to have a big impact on you, too, which is good; family is important!

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  13. Thank you for this interesting post, Tim. I have visited Indonesia a handful of times, but would like to return to visit all the places that were significant to my family. When I visited before, I did not yet know much about the past of my family. A pilgrimage so to speak. As a Dutch-Indo born on Java shortly after WWII, I have parents with similar war and post-war experiences. They, too, were very reticent about their experiences, and it wasn’t until I (recently) started reading memoirs of an aunt and other relatives as well as stories and documents by survivors of the internment camps and Bersiap that I learned of the horrific experiences that my mother and siblings and many other women and children went through in the camps. I also lost my paternal grandfather and a 17-year old uncle to the Bersiap actions.

    I would love to read more about the camps that you visited. Did you write about them in previous posts?

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  14. COMPLETELY fascinating! I can only imagine the niggling that the connection was for you Tim…the driving force, the impetus that awakened your need to discover. I’m not sure that so many people would have had the courage to pursue the slightly known, given the circumstance of different cultures and languages.

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