Day 1: Jakarta, Indonesia

Adventures must contain the Possibility of Uncertainty


Day 1 has been a success, though not without a little drama.

After a long trip (30 hours travel time), we arrive at the Sukarno/Hatta International Airport in Jakarta, the capitol of Indonesia, the end of November 2013. People swarming everywhere. Security guards moving us out of the walkways. We expect to be greeted by Martin’s son carrying a sign with our names. Instead there is no one there. Friends had warned us of this possibility. “Have a backup plan,” they advised. But Laurie and I trusted. The redundancy and interlocking nature of our interactions provided us with confidence. We wait 5 minutes. Still nobody.

I suggest calling. A bit stunned by this unexpected turn of events and dazed by the cabin fever of a long flight, Laurie is like a ‘deer in the headlights’ – paralyzed and not knowing which way to turn. She eventually checks her Email for the phone number that she didn’t expect to need. It starts with a ‘+’. “A plus sign? Where’s the damned ‘+’ key? I don’t have ‘+’ key.” She punches the rest of the buttons. No ringing. Just a strange signal. She punches again. The same aggravating response.

A negative thought flits through my mind, “Martin is playing a strange and cruel joke upon us.” But no real anxiety. “Place your faith in the Universe. It takes care of you. Nothing is wrong. The redundancy contained in our extended interaction is too strong.”

As we are looking totally bewildered and lost, a security guard approaches us. I wonder if he is going to ask us to move. Instead, he asks in broken English what our problem is. We gesture plaintively at Laurie’s cell phone and the phone number. He picks it up. He substitutes the first three characters ‘+62’ with ‘0’ and then dials for us. The phone rings. Juan the son answers. He was at the wrong terminal. He’ll be right over with the driver. We sigh with relief, knowing that our confidence in Martin and the Universe was justified.

Note that the 30 hours of travel time, while excruciatingly boring and confining, especially towards the end, is condensed into a short clause at the beginning a sentence. The memory is equally shortened. This human experience becomes an instant because of the lack of acceleration to capture attention.

In contrast, our brief encounter at the airport commands 4 paragraphs complete with dialogue. Further, the experience of the temporary uncertainty mixed with a tinge of anxiety is etched into our memory forever. My attention is captured by the intense acceleration of the sudden paralysis of a usually calm Laurie, the warm assistance of a Javanese stranger, followed by the relief of affirmation. These examples provide an indication of how neurological time for living systems is very elastic compared with the regularity of material time, as measured by clocks.

Travelers have this experience regularly. Long airplane flights, boat trips, bus rides or car drives, followed by the excitement of the destination. Who says it’s all about the journey and not the destination? Trapped in a small seat in a darkened cabin for 12 hours, fed substandard food, and getting in line for the toilet is not anyone’s idea of nirvana. It would be hard to argue for the primacy of this experience. Our mind certainly doesn’t. It forgets it as soon we arrive. Collapsing it into a tiny point with all the other boring trips.

Jakarta’s Traffic & a Universal Experience

After exchanging pleasantries, Juan the son: “Everything’s great about Jakarta except the traffic.” This statement grew in significance as the days turned into a week. Our drive from the terminal to our hotel was long, almost 2 hours, especially tiring at the tail end of 30 hours of numbing travel.

Although exhausted, Laurie and I are fascinated by the bewildering display that greets our senses. A stream of humanity crawling by: pedestrians meandering in and out of traffic selling goods to the motorists trapped in the endless streets congested with vehicles of every kind – each jockeying for the next available space with the hope of moving forward a few inches. Countless motor bikes, old busses and cars honking politely to communicate with each other in the labyrinth known as Jakarta’s streets. The dividing lines in the middle of the roads are universally ignored – with 2 lanes easily expanding to 4 depending upon the size of the transport. Chickens squawking, roosters crowing, vendors hawking their wares combined with the Muslim afternoon call to prayer.

Jakarta Traffic

Jakarta Streets

The abundance of new information eventually overwhelms my attention and I close my eyes. As I sit next to the driver on the front seat, some familiar music intrigues my tired ears. At first, I can’t recognize it. Then wait, the tune comes into focus. Unbelievable – Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. How random is that? Some of my favorite music juxtaposed against the alien sights and sounds of the big city streets.

Note that our Javanese driver, Danny, speaks no English. I gesture to the radio and say ‘Led Zeppelin’. He nods enthusiastically and issues a thumbs-up. We are bonded. Subsequently, I attempt to name the artist every time a new song comes on – Rod Stewart, Beatles, Elvis Presley. He knows them all. Then although the song is familiar, I can’t identify the artist. We both think for awhile, then Danny says, “Police.” And I respond, “Sting.” To which he says, “After”. Then he murmurs something quietly. I can’t quite hear amidst the hubbub. He states clearly, “The Golden Age of Music.”

Chills shoot up and down my spine. Despite the fact that we belong to entirely different cultures (one Muslim, the other Christian) and speak only a few words in common, we like the same music. The relationships of the information packets contained in these melodies evoke a similar response despite dissimilar backgrounds.  Words and literature must be translated, foods might be too unusual, but music is universal. I had already had an insight into the universality of music due to my personal experience with Bach’s music of 3 centuries prior. But this was my first inter-cultural experience. Although our context is as different as night and day, we both believe that this is the Golden Age of Music. Whoa!

The BnB Hotel and a traditional Sundanese dinner with Martin’s Entourage

After what seemed forever, we arrive at the BnB Hotel, our residence for the few nights we are to be Jakarta. New, just 6 months old, but our room has no windows. We collapse for a nap after our exhausting journey.

At 7PM, we are down to the hotel lobby. Very modern, possibly influenced by Internet culture. KAFFEIN in bold print identifies an espresso bar in the breakfast area. Fairly good cappuccinos but too milky. On the left of the espresso bar is a non-traditional wall mural graced with human silhouettes, each accompanied by the phrase ‘Damn, I’m good’ enclosed in a cartoon bubble. On the right is a fake Christmas tree decorated with large round ornaments, artificial snow and lights. Throughout the area are imitation globe-like topiaries. Young people mingle with their cell phones and modern hairstyles. We could be anywhere in the world. There is nothing about the interior or the people that suggests that we are in foreign country.

Suddenly, the mysterious Martin arrives – a taller, well-groomed, neatly dressed Chinese man in his early 50s. After introductions, he rushes us into his van. “My family is already at the restaurant. Normally, I don’t drive, by the driver is with them. Sorry about the hotel, but it is convenient – close to my apartment. You’ve seen how traffic is.”

Me: “We are just happy to be here with you. It’s very modern. Everyone seems happy and well fed.”

“This is the upper-middle class area of town. Not so good in other areas.”

After a confusing drive, we reach an underground parking lot. After puttering around for a short time with no parking spaces opening up, Martin double parks behind two vehicles and gives his keys and a tip to a parking attendant. We walk briskly, Martin style, through an Indonesian style shopping mall, just as confusing as the streets. There are open markets, combined with Western style department stores in a chaos of alleyways. Electronics, clothes, watches, sporting goods, and grocery stores are all mixed up with myriad restaurants, including ice cream shops, pizza, fried chicken and traditional Indonesian food.

After speed walking encouraged by Martin’s “Come on, Come on,” we reach our destination. There is his entourage: the 4 members of his family – Juan, 14 year old son, tall for his age and very mature, listens to the Beatles, and speaks excellent English. Jadon, his adorable, yet lively 2 year old son – two speeds, running and stopped – a child of many faces that he employs to indicate displeasure, happiness and curiosity. Joni, 16-year-old daughter, quite reserved and very pretty. And Sinta-Yani, his young early 40s wife, a Sumatran who speaks little English, attends kindly to her children (one daughter at home).

Also included in our troupe were Rini, Martin’s nanny and housekeeper to help with the children, and Voon-yen, a lady friend from Martin’s hometown of Johor at the tip of Malaysia, fortyish and Chinese, speaks decent English.

Although not at the table that evening, Danny and William, the two drivers of our minivans, were integral members of our group. Neither spoke English that well, but they ate with us and were treated with utmost respect by all.

Eleven of us, including Martin, Laurie and I, were to embark upon this epic journey across the island of Java in the coming days.

That evening we ate at an Indonesian family style restaurant, Sundanese style. In the following week, we were to discover that the Sundanese live on the western half of the island of Java and the Javanese live on the eastern half. Although the two cultures share many traits in common, they have a different cuisine and speak unique languages. They are not dialects, but as different as Italian and Spanish.

Each of us had exotic fruit smoothies to begin – delicious and refreshing. Shortly after many dishes arrived, including a whole fish, spicy chili paste condiments, savory beef ribs, a green vegetable, and omni-present rice. They were placed in the center of the table.

Martin: “Eat with your hands, traditional style.”

Me: “My pleasure. It tastes better that way. Besides I have a hard time eating with silverware.”

Although they were concerned it would be too spicy for us, it was similar to the Mexican salsas we enjoy back at home in California. We were in food heaven, dipping exotic foods into the tangy sauces. After the food frenzy, the table looked like it had been hit by a firestorm – kernels of rice and sauce remnants decorating the paper table covering. Finger bowls were placed on the table to clean our hands, as teenage Juan gnawed at the remains of the fish carcass, as he was to do many times in the days to come.

I mentioned fruit and Martin whisked us off to a local market. In addition to mangos, mangosteins, snakeskin fruit, and star fruit, Martin also purchased a knife, which was to come in very handy on the trip.

In the following week, any time that we mentioned any desire, Martin satisfied it as soon as possible. This included coconut macaroons, fresh pineapple, peanut brittle and an iced Malaysian coconut drink with glutinous pearls made of rice starch.

After shopping, Martin: “How about something very unhealthy for dessert? A chocolate pancake cooked in butter.”

Laurie: “I can’t eat another bite.”

Me: “We’re very stuffed from dinner and don’t want to impose upon your generosity.”

 “I’m going to get some for my family anyway.”

How could we say, no?

Martin: “How about a beer as we wait? I’m going to have one.”

“Why not?”

We all loosened up under the influence of the alcohol and got to know each other a little better. Note this was the last alcohol we consumed together until our farewell, one week later. Evidently the Malay and Javanese, including the Chinese, only consume a moderate amount of alcohol. Still full, we only ate a little of the delicious dessert when it arrived, saving the rest for later. Throughout the journey, Martin made sure that we were well fed. After this intimacy, we went on a brief tour of his apartment. And then gratefully to bed.

Repaying a Debt

It was at the family dinner that I presented Martin with my book, The Rise & Fall of Southeast Asia’s Empires. He was visibly moved, especially as I had employed the picture he sent me as the cover of the book.

Later over beers, I asked Martin why he made his kind offer. He mentioned 2 factors. 1) Everyone, 99.9% in his words, he knows is secular with no interest in history or the roots of culture. And 2) he was repaying a debt to his Jewish Godmother (his father's penpal) who befriended him when he was young, regularly sending him $5 and $10 bills as presents. It seems that the Dharma Wheel started long ago with this kind lady’s generosity and continues with Martin’s extreme generosity to my wife and I.

The ways of the Universe are strange indeed. My Person was the beneficiary of another payback decades ago. Jimmy, the Physicist, encouraged me to continue my science at a bleak point in my personal history. He too was paying off a debt to a fellow physicist, Oppenheimer, who had befriended him. Because he was a Southerner, the scientific establishment shunned him. Oppenheimer took Jimmy under his wing. In other words, the Universe continues to nudge me along my strange and magical path.

The Universe takes care of me, but I must fulfill my part of the bargain. My side of the Deal is straightforward. My Person must testify to this divine influence rather than keeping it hidden from the overwhelming bias of the secular world. My Dharma path is to shine a light in the darkness of materialism – the spark that lights the world on fire. Just waiting for the wind to change.


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