MY INDONESIAN CONNECTION
This is an excerpt from my latest book “Tales from Chasing Life. A Journey of Journeys.” It deals with my travels to Indonesia over the years from backpacker to diplomat. “We travel not to escape life but for life not to escape us.”
Indonesia is a beautiful country consisting of some 17,000 islands. And for some reason, I’ve had a “connection” with this fantastic place even though I’m not sure why. It’s as if it has reached out to me, luring me to its beautiful shores on several occasions. I believe the first time I visited Indonesia was around 1987, when I stopped on Bali for a week to break up my long journey to Australia. I had left the cold Swedish winter behind and was desperate for some sun and warmth.
Arriving at 21.30 and starving to death (not to mention needing a beer), I quickly checked in to my “budget hotel,” threw my backpack in my room, deposited my key with the receptionist and headed to the closest outdoor restaurant/pub I could find. I stumbled upon the perfect place right on the beach after walking about 15 minutes. The place seemed empty, but I didn’t care. I was jet-lagged and hungry. My plan was to eat, drink and go back to the hotel and sleep. But even the simplest and best-laid plans don’t survive contact with the “enemy.”
The enemy, in this case, was two truckloads of inebriated Aussies on an epic pub crawl – apparently a “must-do” when in Kuta Beach. They swarmed in and occupied the entire restaurant, which I assume they had booked in advance. Maybe that’s why it was empty. I was soon joined at my table by fun-loving males and females roughly 20 years younger than my “mature” 40 years. After several rounds or schools, as they called them, I was invited to hop into a truck and continue with them. That sounded like a great idea to me. It would be the perfect way to learn a bit about how Aussies think and act since Australia was my destination.
We soon rolled out to the next pub on this crawl and the next and the next and…you get the picture. We covered most if not all of Kuta Beach that night. And suddenly, it was over just as quickly as it began for me. Everyone hugged each other, said their goodbyes and headed back to their hotels to sleep off the alcohol. Everyone except for me. I found myself alone, shitfaced and with no idea where I was or where my hotel was. I didn’t remember the name of the hotel and didn’t have my room key, so grabbing a taxi was out of the question.
I did what any “mature” 40-year-old would do in this case and headed for the beach to get some sleep. I woke when the waves began to lap at my feet and the tropical sun was beating down on my winter-white body, which was now clad only in shorts. I still don’t know what happened to my T-shirt. Maybe I lost in some sort of “old-guys go wild” wet T-shirt contest. God, I sure hope not. At least it was daylight now, so I set out to find my hotel. I knew it was across the street from the beach, so I chose a direction and began searching for my accommodation.
The universe was smiling at me. After about one hour of walking/stumbling (still very drunk), I recognized my humble abode. I collected my room key, put on a T-shirt and went to find somewhere to eat a desperately needed breakfast. I found a quaint little place that offered great breakfasts. The “Kuta Special Omelet” sounded fantastic, so I ordered one and began pouring coffee down my throat. The omelet was excellent but had a taste I couldn’t quite identify. I didn’t care at that point and devoured it like a mad man and headed back to the hotel.
Once back at the hotel, the pool beckoned for some reason. I later realized why. My special omelet was indeed special and chock full of Psilocybin, a.k.a. “magic mushrooms.” As I entered a state that I had entered in decades, the bliss of doing nothing but floating in the pool for the rest of the day was irresistible. So that’s what I did – pale skin and all. The result was a wonderful day observing cloud formations and pondering life in general for insights. It also resulted in the worst sunburn ever. I took a couple of days off from the beach, pool and sun but not from my favorite breakfast place and favorite omelet.
A few years later, I found myself back in Indonesia again, determined to see other areas than Bali, although I started my trip there again. This time, however, I explored the entire island and its many attractions, volcanoes and other beautiful places, including the amazing town of Ubud. I continued eastward, stopping for a few days on Lombok before moving on to Nusa Tenggara (the Southeast Islands). The next stop was the island of Sumbawa, which was much larger than I expected. It took me a couple of days to hitchhike across the Island and take a ferry to my next stop – the island of Flores.
Once there, I paid a fisherman to take me across the straight to the Komodo Island – home of the Komodo Dragon. I took a special trekking tour through the national park to witness these massive creatures. After a few hours of walking through thick vegetation, we came to a viewing area surrounded by a small fence no more than a meter high. The park ranger then threw out some bloody chunks of meat to lure the dragons out into an open area. And out they came – directly from the area we had just walked through! Several of the dragons fought viciously over the meat and began to approach the viewing area. I asked the park ranger if they could jump over the small fence surrounding us and he said, “Yes, easily.” Luckily, they didn’t, and I returned to Flores unharmed.
I hitchhiked across Flores to the island’s only airport, which at the time consisted of a small building, a grass runway and no staff. I had been told to be there an hour before my flight to Makassar, located at the southern tip of Sulawesi. I waited and waited but no one showed up. Just as I saw the aircraft approaching, a signal sounded and an airline employee cycled up to the building, looked at my ticket and backpack, and gave me a “thumbs-up.” He biked away before the plane had come to a halt. No one got off and I was the only passenger getting on the small aircraft. I’m sure it’s much different today.
Once in Makassar, I began hitchhiking to the northern tip of Sulawesi to Manado, which is known for its spectacular diving. I found a brilliant 4-start hotel that was practically empty (off-season, I guess) and got a room and all food included for less than $50 a night. After a few days of great diving and great food, I headed out to visit the famous Torajans. The Torajans are known for their special houses that resemble boats or the handle of the Indonesian knife known as a Kris. But they are more famous for their unusual practice of keeping their dead among them.
Torajans traditionally believe that death is not a sudden, abrupt event, but a gradual process toward Puya (the land of souls or afterlife). During the waiting period, the body of the deceased is wrapped in several layers of cloth and kept under their house. The soul of the deceased is thought to linger around the village until the funeral ceremony is completed, after which it begins its journey to Puya. In a special ritual that takes place each year in August, the bodies of the deceased are exhumed to be washed, groomed and dressed in new clothes. Family members happily pose for photos with their dead relatives. Eventually, the bodies are placed in small caves on cliffs for everyone to see. It was without a doubt one of the strangest burial practices I’ve ever seen. From there, I flew back to Jakarta for the long trip home.
The next time I was in Indonesia was when I was celebrating my 50th birthday by traveling around the world with my 16-year-old son. We only had time for one stop in Indonesia and that was Kuta Beach, Bali – again. Go figure. We surfed, partied and hung out on the beach most of the time. We hung out at two clubs while there because of the friendly mix of people from all over the world who gathered there to party and have fun. They were the Sari Club and Paddy’s Bar, names that would become well known a scant five years later when Islamic terrorists bombed the establishments and killed over 200 partygoers. When I read about that, my mind flashed back to how my son and I had also partied in those tightly packed clubs. The carnage must have been unbelievable.
My next visit to Indonesia would be just a few years later (but before the Bali bombings) and would focus on Jakarta – the capital. I was managing a small telecommunications company in Stockholm when I got an offer to troubleshoot our Jakarta office. I jumped at the opportunity, especially when I was told that I could stay on if I liked it. I arrived with the country in chaos, as long-time dictator Suharto had recently been forced out of office. Our operations were in jeopardy because no one knew in which direction the country was headed. There were riots and protests everywhere.
During my short stay, I encountered an interesting cross-cultural management dilemma that I had to solve. Our operation went on 24/7 and we had a group of female operators that worked the night shift. Every office had a prayer room in this Muslim country, but my female operators refused to enter the prayer room at night. My university-educated supervisor of the operators explained why – the prayer room was haunted. At first, I thought she was joking, but I soon realized she believed that as well. You can’t tell people who believe in the spirits that there is no such thing as a ghost. And our struggling company couldn’t operate without its night shift. A solution was needed.
I came into the office for the night shift to see what I could do. The operators were huddled in the break room. If they couldn’t pray, they couldn’t work. I took off my shoes and entered the prayer room. I sat there for about 30 minutes wondering how I was going to turn this around. And then it hit me. I came out and told them that the prayer room was indeed haunted – but by a very benevolent spirit who had previously “protected” the building next door.
After rioters and protesters burned the building to the ground, this friendly ghost had nowhere to reside and nothing to protect. And that’s why it moved into our prayer room – to watch over the operators and the building. They bought the explanation lock, stock and barrel and the crisis was resolved. Apparently, the spirit couldn’t convince our headquarters to keep the Jakarta operation going, though. The office was to close, and I returned to Stockholm only to be given a “golden handshake” and set free. Little did I know at the time that this was the start of a process that would one day bring me back to Indonesia in a somewhat different capacity.
Fast forward to October 2004, when I departed for Indonesia as a newly commissioned Foreign Service Officer (diplomat). I was going to be the Political/Economic Officer at the US Consulate in Surabaya, East Java. My reporting area covered exactly the same areas and a little bit more than I had backpacked through several years before. It’s strange how the universe works. My wife and I spent a fantastic year enjoying and traveling in Indonesia, including a “mandatory” return to Kuta Beach, Bali, where I had surfed and partied a few years before.
On one of the visits, we returned to the site of the tragic bombings (three bombs exploded). Paddy’s Bar had reopened as Paddy’s Reloaded but the Sari club (my favorite) remained an empty lot as a memorial. As we stood there looking at that empty space, my wife and I turned to each other at the same time and said, “We need to leave now!” Once away from there, we discussed what had gone through our heads while standing there. To my surprise, we both had the same experience. We heard cries, wailing, screams and moaning. We felt a chill in the hot tropical sun and immense negativity. Was it the lost souls of those poor people? I don’t know, but I do know the universe works in strange ways. I haven’t been back to Indonesia since 2004.
Lesson learned: The universe works in strange ways.