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Saturday, November 9, 2013

Jakarta Drive By

I spent three tumultuous years in Indonesia, 2003-06. It was a strange and wonderful time and country. Indonesia was, in theory, Muslim, the world's largest Muslim country, to be precise. It, however, was a complex amalgam of many faiths and beliefs which knocked the hard edges off of Islam, and produced a relatively tolerant and laid-back country. Islam was there, but so was Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, a variety of animist religions, a cult built around a sea goddess, and lots of worship of Britney Spears and other western pop stars. Senior levels of Indonesian society also had a genuine love for American country music, and karaoke bars and national television were full of it. It was something to see serious Indonesian politicians, business tycoons, and military donning cowboy hats and breaking out into "Red River Valley."

The nation's complex ethnic make-up usually worked, but had produced huge bloody explosions, such as the 1960s government-sponsored pogrom aimed at the Chinese community. It resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. A subsurface tension continued to exist between Chinese-Indonesians and "regular" Indonesians, originally "caused" by the ostensible belief that the Chinese were communist sell-outs to Red China, and which, over the years, mutated into the charge that the Chinese had become too successful. Chinese names had been banned, and most Chinese adopted Indonesian surnames often with a western first name. The Chinese were, in fact, the single most successful group in the country, and many prominent and world-class wealthy businessmen were ethnic Chinese. These Chinese-Indonesians put a very high premium on education, a large proportion spoke good English, had been educated abroad, and maintained links to the outside world "just in case." Few had become Muslim and generally were Christian or Buddhist, and often both or nothing discernible. They, of course, reminded me of Jews I had met around the world: never quite certain that they could and would manage to live out their lives peacefully in their home country.

This mix, as noted, created a distinctly un-Islamic culture. Most Indonesians adhered to Islam in the same way Spaniards or Filipinos did to Catholicism. In other words, religious identity was not foremost in the average person's mind in the course of the day. Indonesia's military was decidedly unreligious, and highly suspicious of radical Islam. Even during major Muslim holidays, such as Ramadan, one hardly noticed in the capital. That, unfortunately, had begun to change in the 1990s and 2000s. The Saudis and their oil money sponsored madrassas, mosques, hajj excursions, etc., in a bid to make Indonesia into a "real" Muslim country. The country received "missionaries" from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, and other Muslim countries who sought to show Indonesians the errors of their overly tolerant ways. Islamic political parties had begun to emerge, drawing voters with anti-foreign, anti-corruption, and pro-poor platforms, noting that Indonesia, a member of OPEC, had high levels of poverty and income inequality.

Terrorism had become a major problem in Indonesia by the time I arrived. The radical fringe was no longer content to restrict itself to proselytism. Jemaah Islamiyah (many spellings) was the major terrorist organization. It had links with sister groups in Malaysia, Philippines, Bangladesh, Pakistan and elsewhere and formed part of the global Al Qaeda network. They conducted several horrific bombings in Indonesia, including of hotels and bars in Bali, the Marriott in Jakarta, and a bloody attack on the Australian embassy. They murdered Christians, including school children, and burned churches. We worked closely with the Aussies--terrific at this sort of thing--and the Indonesian government against JI and achieved some notable successes. That, of course, put senior members of the US and Australian embassies in JI's crosshairs. JI, in fact, almost did kill the superb Australian Ambassador; the very well-built Aussie embassy saved him from being skewered by a metal fence post that flew into his bullet-proof office window following a suicide vehicle blast.

While not allowed to carry a weapon, as I had done in other posts, I had lots of security. When the Ambassador fell ill and had to leave the country for a long period of time, I inherited his even more elaborate security apparatus. Lead car, follow car, fully armored car, bodyguards, you get the picture. When my wife and I went to the movies--unbelievably modern cinemas in Jakarta--a security person would buy the tickets and seats all around us would be kept clear of other patrons. The guards would block the row in which we sat. Restaurants, same deal. I figured we drew much more attention by this sort of thing. I always wanted to get into a cab and show up somewhere, certain nobody would know who I was, and just blend in with the huge flock of other foreigners in Jakarta. No, that was not to be. On occasion, however, I would slip my guards and flee for a little freedom.

We lived in one of the few old residential neighborhoods left in the city, and occupied a beautiful US government-owned house that in the 1930s had belonged to the General Motors representative in Indonesia. We had a lovely park across the street, and around us several blocks of old Dutch-era houses which had not yet fallen to developers' insatiable desire to put up huge skyscrapers and shopping malls. At night, the neighborhood, uncharacteristic for Jakarta, was quite dark. Lots of big trees, high walls, and uneven narrow sidewalks. It was quiet, and I enjoyed walking at night with my beloved Rottweiler, Kodiak, at my side, and a good Honduran cigar clenched between my teeth. The problem was the bodyguards. They did not like going out in the neighborhood precisely because it was dark, had lots of trees, high walls, and uneven narrow sidewalks. It was, of course, perfect ambush country. When I got out for a walk, I had a guard in front, one behind, another keeping pace across the street, and sometimes a car following along. This was not conducive to thinking and clearing of the head. As noted, I would at times find a way to slip out of the house, alone but for dog and cigar.

One night, I pulled a Houdini-like escape into the dark. I felt free, liberated, able to confront the night on my own. It must have been around 11 pm or so, and Kodiak and I had been walking for about 30 minutes. I noticed a car that passed us going in the opposite direction, now making a U-turn behind us and heading back our way from behind. It was driving very slowly, not a usual thing in Jakarta at night. As I said, I had no weapon, and suddenly realized I had not brought my cellphone. I can be pretty stupid. With a dog, and a cigar for protection, MacGyver-like scenarios ran through my head. Maybe I could flick the cigar into their faces while Kodiak jumped them, and I . . . no, no, I would put the cigar in the gas tank . . . it was too late. The car had come even with us, moving at our speed. We stopped. The car stopped. The front passenger window slid down. I swear to this day that I saw the guy in the front seat shove a sawed-off shotgun through the now open window. I thought, this is how it ends. There will be an investigation; I will be declared, literally, terminally idiotic and deserving of my fate.

The "shotgun" was aimed point-blank at my chest.

"Mister, look! Just like yours!"

Kodiak began to growl. Despite the gloom I could see the "shotgun" squirm.

It was a beautiful black and tan Rottweiler puppy.

The man wanted me to admire his dog.

32 comments:

  1. Hah!

    For me the similar, perhaps ill advised, outing was a visit to a pub (one specifically ordered never to go near - hey, everybody did it, a game was to collect a souvenir from every banned establishment during a tour) followed by a moonlit stroll down the Falls Road (no Honduran, Embassy No. 1 instead). Alone, almost deserted street, no one else on foot, car going the other way suddenly screeching to a stop, U-turn and speeding towards, and stopping next to me.

    I 'was' armed and nearly blew the fecking head off the guy who innocently pops his head out the window and asks .. for a light (forgot his lighter/matches and was 'gagging for fag').

    On discussing this, confidentially, with a 'more senior colleague', and after the usual 'you did what you stupid F ...', he calmed down and mused:

    "such moments are when you realise that adrenalin is warm and runs down your leg''.

    Oh, so true!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Actually I was attempting to pretend to be a polite gentleman (as if), his actual words were

      "such moments are when you realise that adrenalin is brown and runs down your leg

      Delete
    2. You wuz lucky mate. Our sniper fucked up, was late.

      Delete
    3. Ah, delayed beating the 10 yr old kid who stole a bottle of milk with a sock full of pool balls, or was he busy shaking down a local builder for 'his cut'?

      And 'sniper'? Isn't that the term you use for the guy who can hit the knee-caps of someone lying beaten on the ground, 2 out of three times?

      Delete
  2. Now that's a story of what a day in the life was like.

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  3. I was just as brash and irresponsible as a 20 yr old enlisted soldier wandering around downtown Tel Aviv, during Desert Storm. My attitude arrived 20 feet before I did! Although, in retrospect, I do believe it was safer in 1991 with the threat of SCUDs, than it has been in the past decade. Suicide bombers were not a re-occurring problem back then. Even so, I prefer taking a risk to safely sitting at home while my brain turns to pudding.

    I have only recently found your blog, but it is now on my regular reading list. It's good to know that I am not the only one filled with impotent rage at current goings-on, although I find it disheartening that someone with your vast experience doesn't hold much hope for the future.

    More stories, please!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hope you are not a groupie of the late genius Richard Feynman. Years ago I knew one who got pregnant from the experience.

      I was one of his students (Physics 231, High Energy Physics)--like most, initially star-struck. That's nearly the extent of our acquaintance (except that I attended one fairly wild party at which he was present).

      I have a lot of stories--some of which you may have read, but you have to read between the lines to get the point. But I don't think they're the kind you want.

      I'm going to make this short, because I'm speaking ill of the dead. He's not here to defend himself, though countless groupies are. But I'm here to tell you: in my entire life I have met only one absolute asshole, and it was Richard P. Feynman.

      Not in a cute way, like the fictional character Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory.

      I think he was more like the actor Tony Curtis, but with brains instead of looks. The world was his oyster; he could do what he pleased to whom he pleased and everyone would do as he asked and that was fine with him.

      Delete
    2. I attended a few of his lectures both at UCLA and at CalTech. He was very witty, unbelievably smart, but also totally in love with himself.

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    3. Correct. Read some of the familiar Feynman stories. Read a little between the lines. Notice how often they turn on making someone else uncomfortable or even miserable.

      He was, of course, a transcendent genius. Such as he leave a trail of great works the way a snail leaves a trail of slime, but it doesn't pay to get too intimate with either.

      Delete
    4. Geniuses are usually assholes, I have no illusions about that. :) His books were an inspiration and I admire how he lived his life. I'm not a genius, but I am a contrarian asshole and I approve of people who refuse to live to other people's standards.

      Well, if I were to get myself knocked up, I couldn't do better! I'd take him over these pompous oxygen thieves, who are granted fame and fortune, any day of the week. Brains and charisma trump pretty every time.

      Delete
    5. Geniuses are *not* usually assholes. Geniuses usually don't have much *time* for people because they are uncommonly busy, but of all the geniuses I've met--and I've met quite a few as it so happens--there were many excellent characters, some medium fellows, but only one asshole.

      BTW, being deliberately cruel to others (not always in petty ways) is not something to be proud of, or tolerant of, nor does being a genius excuse it. Brains and charisma do not trump morality.

      People who think they do vote Democratic. Such voters are largely mistaken in thinking Democratic candidates are smarter than their Republican opponents. But even if those candidates had been terribly brainy, they would only be more dangerous.

      Delete
    6. I am on Diplomad's blog, so I shall refrain from responding impolitely.

      Wow, way to overreact. I referred to myself as an asshole, I hugely admire the man, and I joke about carrying his child. Is it not apparent that I am using the term, "asshole" in a most complimentary manner? You pompously inform me that my admiration is misplaced and then defend him when I make a joke. Do you not recognize the smiley face as the universal internet symbol of humor?

      Where in this brief time span have I implied that cruelty is a worthy trait or something to tolerate?

      When did I say that brains and charisma trump MORALITY? I said PRETTY.

      This is my first time commenting and you've managed to take everything that I have written and turned it into a personal affront and then taken it upon yourself to lecture me.

      Thank you for ruining my morning and destroying my interest in commenting on this blog.

      Diplomad, I thank you for sharing your stellar observations and experiences. I shall continue to enjoy them from the sidelines.





      Delete
    7. You're right. This is not my blog. I have a long history of "overreacting" to deliberate cruelty and deliberately cruel people--and those who worship them. I'll try not to mention it again.

      Delete
  4. Thanks.

    Saying when this was would make it even better. "Fall of 2003" is so much better than once upon a time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're right. I will add the dates.

      Delete
    2. What, because you can remember the United States of America when it was a constitutional republic? Because you can remember Indonesia before there was much Islamofascism? Because you can remember your dog as a pup?

      Being really old beats the alternative.

      Delete
  5. The Christmas 2004 tsunami is when I discovered Diplomad. It was a helpful insight into events on the spot compared to media stories.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I spent a lot of time in Jakarta and Bandung in the '90s. There was a radio station that played nothing but Sinatra - 24/7. It seemed to be a favorite of the taxi drivers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sinatra! Yes, I had forgotten about that. He was still popular.

      Delete
  7. I'm just a housewife/gramma but I so appreciate your blog. Thank you for being honest about what you saw and what you see.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anony, there is no such thing as "just" a housewife/gramma.

      Every baby is born a barbarian. For every adult that isn't, thank a mama and a papa, and usually one or two gammas and grampas. And this is known to be an extremely difficult job, as well as crucial.

      Thank you for your service.


      Delete
  8. fantastic... well.. not seeing countries that are descending into disaster like indonesia seems to have been. Sad to see that the democrats are following in the example of the islamofascists: hey, look, "social injustice", help us help you (... take down the country that's helped provide for you...).

    - reader #1482 (out of six)

    - reader #1482

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thanks, Dip. My acquaintance with Indonesia happened while teaching in Taiwan. We had lots of 侨生 (Overseas Chinese students) at the institution where I worked.
    I also did supply preaching and translation editing for the Christian Reformed (Gereformeerde, to any Dutch folk here) mission, working with the kid brother of Moktar Riady's pastor.

    Long afterwards, in a later sojourn there, I noticed that a lot of Indonesian Chinese had permanently settled in the country, introduced beef rendang as a popular dish, and ran shops that catered to the indigenous Indonesian guest worker--one of whom is attendant caregiver to my wife's aged parents (gives my brother-in-law a great deal of respite). They get along well. The attendant knows both Mandarin and Hakka (at least spoken), and shares the chicken and beef, if not the pork.

    Unfortunately, I've never gotten to Indonesia itself.

    But, as for the story, it seems that pet-lovers are the same the whole world over.

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  10. Also, since I asked for FS memoirs, a heartfelt thank you, xie xie (谢谢), vielen danke, merci, gracias, toda raba, xingmengngi (承蒙你), khop khun maak, khop chao, gamsa hamnida, domo arigato, gam en, doa sia (多谢 ), mahaoiso, mange tak, a shenye dank, etc.

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  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  12. OT, but Diplomad is the expert:

    I have seen very little information about an American response to the tsunami in the Philippines. American Power linked to the UK's Daily Mail for the following report:
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2498573/Obama-deeply-saddened-Typhoon-Haiyan-devastation-marines-sent-Philippines-assist-relief-efforts.html

    American Power’s post has a cartoon lampooning Obama for you at: americanpowerblog.blogspot.com/2013/11/obama-deeply-saddened-by-typhoon-haiyan.html

    Obama has sent a team of about 90 U.S. Marines and sailors aboard two KC-130J Hercules transport aircrafts, as well as two Navy P-3 Orion surveillance aircrafts to assist with search and rescue efforts. Haiyan, a maximum category-five storm with ground winds of up to 235 mph, killed 10,000 in the city of Tacloban, Leyte alone. The country's national disaster agency reports that four million people have been affected.

    Diplomad had an important role in America's response to the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004. His posts during that period brought his blog to our attention, and many of us have been faithful readers ever since. Bush immediately sent an aircraft carrier to the Indian Ocean to help with search and rescue as well as disaster relief. Bush detractors scoffed at the idea of an aircraft carrier, but these vessels can produce large quantities of water, which the tsunami survivors desperately needed. Their search and rescue capabilities are unparalleled as well. It seems to me that Obama's initial response is paltry at best (except for the deeply saddened part, an emotion he is skilled at simulating for brief periods), but I do not feel well-informed on the subject and hesitate to judge. (I am trying hard to quell my absolute lack of confidence in his ability to manage anything in an effective and timely manner.)

    Granted that the Philippines disaster does not reach the scale of the Indian Ocean disaster, it is a terrible situation with much suffering requiring an urgent response. I wonder if Diplomad would give us a post that compares and contrasts the Bush and Obama responses, and if he has access to information about the Philippines aftermath that is not being widely reported yet.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You want the halfrican princess to make a decision-seriously? He is only commander-in-chief and his chiefs-of-staff are probably busy designing the next set of ribbons for diversity warriors. The USA does NOT project power under the halfrican princess.

      He was busy at Arlington today, telling lies, as we have become accustomed. Something about "we support our military"-nobody mentioned Benghazi.

      Delete
  13. I would second that...
    Just today I wondered when an aircraft carrier group would arrive in the P.I. to help these folks out.
    A few marines just ain't gonna cut it.
    Hey Dip. What think you?

    ReplyDelete
  14. Another nation with which we had a strong relationship is being treated very poorly by the Obama administration. Former administrations would have ordered assets into the region before the storm made landfall. This administration, like its leader, will be late in arriving and fail to meet expectations of the intended recipients while expecting a disproportionate amount of applause - no, worship - from the world.

    ReplyDelete