I’m not sure when or where I first learnt the word ‘archipelago’, but it was probably in Geography at school. And those wonderful to say syllables would have tumbled from the lips of one of my teachers in a way that made me know that there were no archipelagos in Somerset, and that the chances of me ever seeing one were slim.
Geography was an introduction to a world more exotic than the one I knew of, and one more distant than any I ever expected to explore. I only really remember three geography teachers. Mr Goldsmith, who was just a wee bit too young and fashionable for the rest of the staff at the former Grammar School. A female teacher whose name escapes me, but I suspected was really a PE teacher masquerading as a geographer; her tendency to wear track suits to class and her unfailing habit of reading her notes to us from an old black A4 clip file, reinforced my opinion that she was an imposter.
And finally there was Mr. George Rodgers, who within the school was Geography. In the fine tradition of teachers of this subject he had a total disregard for the niceties of dress code. He rejected the classic leather arm patches on jackets and pullovers, but instead wore his tie on the outside of his solid colour, vee necked jumpers. When he bent forward over a desk his tie would flop forward like some out of control trunk. (During my years as a teacher I rarely needed to wear a jumper of any sort, but I wore a single bar, silver tie clip to keep my tie under control). George had a fine collection of roller print maps, which would be inked into our exercise books with production line precision. I often wonder if in that cupboard at the back of the geography room, just across from the gym, there are still boxes of those roller printers un-inked and un-loved, awaiting the tides of educational fashion to bring them back to life.
I have no evidence of any sort that George ever used the word archipelago in class, but I believe he may have. And in these days when the necessity for evidence has diminished, belief may be all I need in this regard.
Politics and erosion may have changed the boundaries between countries and the shapes of the seas and mountains on those roller maps, but in those representations of the world there was wonder and magic. I have a suspicion that they set me on the road away from home and on to a journey that took me to a new land, half a world away. I wanted to see an archipelago, an isthmus and walk in U shaped valleys, with truncated spurs and corries, cwms or cirques hidden above. I wanted to see the maps made real.
I hold George at least partially responsible for this, although not in a bad way. I very much doubt that he still teaches, but if it turns out that he still does I would gladly lend – or even give – him my tie clip as both a thank you and as a practical aid.
The sea to the north of Australia is speckled with islands of all shapes and sizes; a Jackson Pollock paint flick on an east west arc. Indonesia sits at the western end of this arc, a porous membrane between Australia and the rest of Asia. It is a country of islands, some large, some small, some well-known, others destined to remain obscure; some islands are peopled by Christians, some by Hindus, but the country is officially Muslim. Even the actual number of islands is contested, and depends on the turn of the tide and the state of the weather. I suspect that the population numbers posted on web sites and printed in books are at the very edge of what could be called estimates, and are more probably bordering on guesses. Isolation and fragmentation leads to diversity and uncertainty and the only thing I am sure of is that I have never been here before.
Despite its apparent proximity on the map, the flight stretches on and on, the view from the window obscured by clouds for most of the trip over Australia, the view only opening up as we pass over the sea. The course is an unfailing northwest, the duration stretching out beyond the normal workday and into a long day. Once out over the ocean it’s clear that the Earth is more sea than land, with only a few green spots breaking up and through the water. A dozen colours surround each island and few of them are blue. Browns where current and tide kick up sediments. Green where the seabed rises towards the surface and plants bask in the shallow water sunlight. There are dozens of places where the two combine. In two places there are streaks of red, maybe where bare rock shows through.
Finally more substantial land comes into view, and based on the sketchy information from the seat back screen I take it to be the eastern end of Java. Even from high above the island, you can see the pockmarks of clearance and the straight lines of boundaries and highways. Close to the coast there are tiny white specks, with broken waves behind them, fishing in the shallow waters. I can see where I want to be, but I know it will be a while before I arrive. Our flight will overshoot Jakarta and fly on to Singapore before I repeat the flight to finally arrive.
I stretch my legs in the bright sterile light of Singapore airport. I check out the giant goldfish, which my kids were pleased to name on my last visit. I wish I could take a shower. I wish I had arrived.
The novelty of the airport seems to have refreshed my mind, and the final leg of the journey – back to a city I passed four hours ago – seems less painful than its outward twin. The city lights shine in the darkness; the ground rushes to meet us. I arrive, alone, in a strange city and am pleased to see my name on a board held by a driver as I leave arrivals and enter the country. The Internet may be a wonderful thing, but having a colleague arrange a taxi for you is even better. Soon I am on the way to the hotel. Soon I will be able to have a shower.
But the soon does not come as quickly as I had anticipated.
It quickly becomes clear that the only thing I do know about Indonesia is that I have never been there. There really are only a few ways in which this country penetrates the news cycle in Australia – as a tourist destination, as an export opportunity (either gained or lost) or as a country where the military are very fond of peaked caps, gold braid and epilates. The fact that this is a developing country seems to fall by the wayside unnoticed. The drive from the airport to the hotels is the start of a journey towards an understanding beyond the news headlines.
Outside of the airport the atmosphere is thick with cigarette smoke and shouted conversations. The taxi drivers and curbside wranglers argue and squabble over fairs and destinations. But most exchanges end in laughter and a proffered cigarette. Shouting seems to be a national sport. Many of the taxis have seen better days, but some are as sharp as a new pin, gleaming and expensive. The one I am guided to is sharp – much more so than the work a day Ford that took me to the airport in Melbourne, much more than any car I am ever going to own.
As we move into the traffic, the mood outside changes from the organized chaos of the airport to the absolute chaos of the open road. Within seconds the car is surrounded by hundreds of mopeds ridden by men, women, children and occasionally whole families. It’s like being inside a swarm of bees, where each bee is independent of the next, but never the less they never collide. Each and every inch of space is occupied as soon as it is vacated, and yet there seems to be none of the testosterone angst that comes with driving at home. To me the mood seems hectic and relaxed at the same time. I suspect this is some form of contradictory duality produced by being in an air-conditioned car with a relaxed timetable and nothing else to do. Outside it may all be different.
And when I start to really look outside, I notice that it is.
By the sides of the roads people are sorting through huge bags of waste plastic and stowing them with care on bicycles. There are shacks below the freeways, backed up against concrete pillars, roofed with sacks and held firm with blue plastic rope. There is hardly a gap between any of these makeshift homes. In doorways without doors people cook over small stoves. Piles of rubbish accumulate in the few open spaces that have not been built on. Many of these piles are on fire, leaking thin wisps of dark smoke and a smell of oil. This is the economy of the poor, the refuge of edge dwellers. This is truly the margin. The veneer of wealth spread by the luxury of the taxi and the swarms of bright new mopeds breaks. I can’t help but wonder what a reversal of observation would bring – I wonder what the people looking in through the tinted windows think. I wonder why these sights surprise me.
The taxi comes to a stop on a section of elevated road. Only one of the five or so lanes seems to be open and all of the traffic is being forced into a single, narrow channel. Motorways become the infrastructure of desire, and a source of redoubled delay. A line of men sit on the road, covered from head to foot in loose fitting, open weave clothes. Only the circle of their face shows through. Most have damp cigarettes hanging from the corner of their mouths; from a few small patches of red flare. They are removing the painted markings from the surface of the road. All of them are chipping the white paint away with small hand-axes.
It’s Dickensian and modern all at the same time. Brutal and harshly economical. Maybe it’s a marker we should all be aware of; in a place where it is cheaper to hire people than use machines, you may not want to drink the water. I feel the weight of the luxury and leather that surrounds. I feel the filter of the tinted windows. I feel startlingly privileged and fortunate to be inside looking out.
Cameras. Phones. A computer and iPad. A wallet stuffed with millions of rupiah. A taxi fee that many could live on for who knows how long. Whatever spark, whatever light, lifts the lifeless stuff of the universe and makes it live, burns as strongly in the men by the side of the road as it does in me. At times like this I am shockingly grateful that the spark in me was lit within the damp green fields of Somerset, rather than under clouded Jakarta skies. It was not religion or purpose, God or fate that lit the fire, it was luck (and biology) and in the face of such poverty, those who mistake luck for talent need to be reminded of the truth.
My thoughts are clouded by capricious ambiguity. I cannot silence the inner dialogue. Fortune, in both ways, sits around me. These are not thoughts to be had when you are alone. I stare out of the window and think about my family. It’s the best I can do.
The hotel is housed behind a tall wall. Guards at the gate run mirrors under the car and look in the boot. I could have had a nuclear weapon in my hand luggage next to me on the back seat, but it went unchecked. But even if this boundary was porous, it was there to put me on the inside and keep other people on the outside. There were more checks on the way in. More surety of separation.
If there is a secret to sleeping in an unfamiliar bed I am yet to learn it; too many hums and buzzes, maybe too much adrenaline, maybe too few comforting rituals of conversation and reading. But at least it means I get to see Jakarta in the early morning light. A kind of pale mustard haze hangs over the city, turning the windows of the tall buildings yellow bronze and the leaves of the plant a seasick green. I can feel heat flowing in from the windows, and down below on a flat roof, banks of fans spin to feed the building’s air conditioners. Pigeons and parrots fly between the palm trees in the hotel garden and, less peacefully, two large fighter jets fly in tight circles overhead. Down in the garden space a group of people look up from their Tai Chi and watch the planes before they return to their morning rituals of relaxation and energy. I seek out the kettle and tea bags for similar reasons.
The view from my window is dominated by a large tree and a larger building. The tree is in a walled garden that formed the back of the hotel. The building is on the other side of a major road that runs hot with cars and mopeds. It is easy to see which of these would be most pleasant to explore.
The garden around the tree seems to ring with a kind of deepened silence, a strange silence that swallows and overwhelms the traffic noise that comes from over the walls. Some fracturing of physics makes the garden quieter than it should be. Just as the razor wire on the walls and the guards at the gate make it more distance from the geography of Indonesia than it should be. The strange silence locks me in, and the walls keep others out. Others who, in all probability make their livings collecting plastic or chipping paint from the road. A single fallen flower rests on the leaves of another plant. Statues emerge from clipped and brushed flowerbeds. Large golden fish cruise with tail flicks, slight but firm, through clean looking water. From the big tree a Coppersmith Barbet calls and calls and calls; repetition like an unoiled machine. I am no pioneer or trail blazer, but this all feels forced and inauthentic, like the rooms in museums that claim to take you to the plains of Africa or the desert of Ancient Egypt. I take refuge in the forced necessity of work. I hide from the fact that I am rich and well (over) fed. This is not survival guilt, but it is the embarrassment of the luckily fortunate. I let the rest of the day slide, and wonder what tomorrow will bring.
A phone call at 4.30 am is normally bad news or a drunk’s mistake. On this morning it is neither. A somewhat surprised voice from reception tells me I have a visitor in reception. The voice at the end of the phone becomes even more surprised when I say that I am expecting the visitor and that I will be down in a minute.
No natural light fills my room as I open the curtains and pick up my camera bag. Down in the almost empty lobby the full glow of largely unnecessary lighting makes daylight of the pre-dawn darkness. My guide awaits me, sitting in an ornate armchair. Khaleb has a classic long black pony-tail and wears the slightly battered air of the professional wildlife guide – tidy enough, but not too tidy; clearly other things are more important. We pass out through the hotel gates and out into the main streets. The traffic has changed from chaotic to the merely frenetic. It’s clear that Jakarta truly is a city that never sleeps.
I have no sense of direction from inside the car, but later I find out that we head west towards the sea. Once we leave the heart of the city, the world seems to become stiller and quieter. I hear a strange noise outside of the car, and hearing it too, Khaleb asks for the car to pull over. We stop outside a small school, the gates still closed, the grounds empty. A short sharp call echoes around the buildings, and the shape of a bird forms a silhouette on the roof;a dog barks and the bird takes flight on long wings. The wings flap in a rapid and pause rhythm, and white patches flash on the up strokes. I know it’s a Nightjar, but Khaleb adds the name ‘savanna’ to it – it’s the first new bird of the day. The bird keeps flying and I keep watching. But in the end it’s time to go.
As we move further from the city center the buildings become smaller, the roads narrower and their surface rougher. We skirt the airport and a driver brakes hard to avoid a flock of chickens that occupy the middle of the road. There are small fires burning outside many of the houses, and thin looking stray cats prowl around the shadows’ edges. Buffalo wallow in deep mud and a haze of some sort pulls a veil over the sharpness of the morning light. Water filled ditches sport solid looking layers of plastic wastes and fractured boxes. There are fewer mopeds and more bicycles. We near the coast, but the sea stays out of view. A lady sits behind a bucket of small silver and gold fish, offering a fresh breakfast. I ask if this is a poor area – which I take to be a stupid question – and find out that this is a holiday area, popular on the weekends with families from Jakarta. The consequences of this break over me like a wave. It makes no sense to me. I have a wallet ripe with rupiah, camera binoculars – all trappings of wealth and discretionary spending which at this time feels indiscrete.
We pull the car over, on a beach of black sand, where cats, with piano key ribs, fight in the litter for scraps of food. Two dogs chase each other in and out of the surf, while a blue wooden boat cuts through the same waves to land on the beach. Flowerpeckers call from the tops of the trees and a kingfisher, blue as the boat, flashes over the littered ponds that sit behind the beach.
I learn to my embarrassment that the blue boat is for me. On the weekends it runs tourists out to the small islands that lie just off the coast. But today, it’s all mine. The boat has four crew, one of whom helps me climb along a bamboo ladder; rough wooden blocks nailed to a pole that bends under my weight.
With hand gestures and a few short words Khaleb directs the boat to what looks like a row of dark sticks, emerging from the water a few hundred meters off shore. The engine is noisy; the crew almost silent. I feel a kind of guilt and a kind of relief. Guilt, that I am so distant from these people, that I have no words beyond a poor version of hello. Relief that today, at least some money will flow their way, that my wallet will lighten to the benefit of more than just bankers and laptop financial wizards. In hindsight the relief is probably a salve for my guilty conscience.
As we move away from the dark sandy shore the disc of the Sun finally fully breaks from the horizon. Above the boat the sky, thickened with a mix of sea mist, cloud and petrol fumes hangs in yellow sheets, below the water seems syrup thick and empty. The fish traps make a case for at least some level of abundance that I cannot see. Other fishing boats, not commandeered by rich birders tend the nets. One of the crew on my blue boat opens a packet of cigarettes and throws the clear wrapper, underhand and casual, into the sea. At other times, in other places, I would have said something – but here, it feels wrong. The wrapper scuds away over the surface of the water, strangely visible in the morning half-light. At the fish traps, nets, suspended by dozens of wooden poles, hang like curtains in the water. Tidal waters flow through and the mesh filters out the fish, small and silver. At the outer nets most of the poles are topped by Frigate Birds.
Under the watchful eye of Khaleb I start to tell Christmas Island from Lesser, Lesser from Great. There are very few other birds about, a few cormorants, a scattering of terns and no gulls. I ask where the gulls are and, to my surprise, find out that they do not occur here. No gulls by the sea? Another marker of ignorance.
In a blue boat, under a dawn yellow sky, on strange oil brown water, I feel misplaced. I can only share words with Khaleb. I turn back to the wonder of the birds, back to nature on a wooden pole. All morning I feel watched, but not by the birds.
When I return to the shore the anonymity of the car feels like a relief. Buffalo wallow in the mud by the side of the road; the lady selling the fish has packed up, leaving empty buckets on a wooden trellis.
The car pulls to a halt by a bridge over of a thin looking river. A man points a gun at the surface of the water, where fish swirl, feeding on crusts thrown by a small boy. A woman, kneeling on concrete steps, washing clothes; soak and squeeze, soak and squeeze. Soapsuds flow away from her and under the bridge. A man, deeper in the water brushes his teeth. And just down from all of these a pipe drips foul brown paste into the water. Four uses; one problem.
On the way back into the city we stop to explore the park around the national monument. The car park is full and the threat of rain has caused the stallholders and drink sellers to cover their carts in plastic. The air is heavy with moisture and fumes, the light still cut with a yellow tone that owes nothing to the Sun. There are Blue Nuthatches and Fulvous-Breasted Woodpeckers. From holes in the trees Coppersmith Barbets survey the world. Green pigeons feast on fruit. All seem out of range of my camera.
On the flat ground between the trees people are sweeping the leaves away and organizing their belongings. They are not visiting for pleasure, but setting up for the night. I feel like I am walking through stranger’s front rooms, looking at the pictures they have hung on their walls. Once more my wallet and camera feel heavy.
The traffic in central Jakarta is back to its normal daylong peak. The air in the hotel lobby is cool and dry and the atmosphere calm and relaxed. I have entered a different world.
Back in my room, as I make a cup of tea, I find I am not thinking about the birds. I think of cats and fish, of the smell of drains and people fishing with guns.
I drink my tea and wonder if tomorrow I will be able to make a difference.