Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Aunty Hendy sends me on a Wild Goose Chase

Photo by Laurence Green

“Where is this Angkot going?” I ask my new friend, Laurence, a photographer I have met whilst wandering around the Gedung Sate area.  As we rush to find our places inside, we decide that it doesn’t really matter - we just need a direction in which to continue wandering.
“Ke mana?” one of the other passengers asks us “where are you going?”
“Tidak tahu” I reply.  I don’t know.  
I ask the driver “Ke mana?”
“Kampung” he replies.
“Oh my God!”  I recollect something that my Aunt told me a few days before.  She said that they had stayed for a short period of time, at some point before their internment, with friends in a beautiful home “near the Kampung”.  I tell Laurence that I have been meaning to try to go there to see what might be left of any old Dutch houses but I didn’t know where it was.
 “That’s amazing…. It must be fate!  Let’s go!” Laurence enthuses, throwing his hands up and clapping once.  He is obviously as much of a believer as I am in the power of connected events and the signs that can guide us towards them, if we choose to follow.  Over the last four or five years I have learned that by recognising and acting at the point where coincidence meets opportunity, no matter what the odds or challenges, doors open up and the experiences that ensue can be life changing.  Four and a half years ago, house-hunting as a favour for a colleague led me to a run-down bedsit in an old 1940s property which had a fantastic and rare 35sqm balcony (larger than the flat itself!) overlooking the quiet streets of Shanghai’s French concession – a prime location.  It came extremely cheap and had great potential, but for two things: I couldn’t imagine anyone other than myself being mad enough to live in what looked, on the face of it, like a complete shithole had no kitchen!  At that time I was trapped in a destructive and co-dependent relationship, having tried various times to leave, only to go careering back each time, like a car crash waiting to happen.    This flat would have been great for me but I was not ready for it at that time.  Four months later, after gaining back a small amount of self respect and control over my life (I thank a new interest in yoga as well as my best friends for that), I returned on the off chance that I might find the flat still available.  It was.  In the meantime, a conservatory-style kitchen extension had been built on one half of the balcony with the added bonus of French doors (no less) leading onto the remainder!   Despite a friend’s warning that the flat was not in a fit state for occupancy, I signed a lease for it immediately.  I knew right away that this place, with a bit of work, would become my sanctuary – I knew that this time I would not go back.  After three abandoned moves, two years of interrupted sleep and one near-breakdown, I was now ready for this home and it was ready and waiting for me (that is after fixing the kitchen roof, stopping rice particles from backing up the kitchen drain into my shower and re-evaluating my stance on the small problem of an elderly neighbour’s public ablutions).  My ex had once said to me “I think it’s raining inside your heart”.  After taking this flat, it may have been raining inside my kitchen, but no longer was it raining inside my heart.   When I finally left the apartment 11 or so months ago, all of my friends were sad to lose what had also become their inner city “oasis”.   
Two years after I had moved in, I received a Chinese New Year bonus at work.  The amount was exactly the same as the fee I was hesitating over for a series of sessions with Beth, a life coach that a friend had recommended to me.   I immediately organised the money transfer, not even thinking about how else I might have used this much-needed cash, thereby opening the door for me to step out from my career and financial rut and walk straight into a new job, one which has led to my being here, sitting in this Angkot, on a not-so-random adventure.   From self-imprisoned wreck to free spirit once again in 4.5 years.
We settle on the bench with our backs to the windows, a line of faces looking directly at us.  Public transport often imposes an uncomfortable forced intimacy amongst strangers.  There is nowhere else to look but directly ahead, or at your feet.  But here I don’t feel uncomfortable. In Asia, paradoxically, I have always felt anonymous despite my conspicuous blonde hair and pale complexion.    Back home I would be shifting in my seat, picking at my nails, looking at the floor, searching for nothing on an iphone.    Instead, a pretty young girl in a soft pink jilbab smiles at me and I look directly into her eyes and smile back. 
One by one, people stop the Angkot and get off, leaving us, the only two remaining passengers, to continue onto Kampung.  The driver strikes up a conversation of sorts.
 “BBC!”  he calls out, looking at us in the rear view mirror
“No.  No, not BBC.  Tour-ist”  I inform him,  as if by saying the word slowly he would understand
“No no.  Not Journalist, TOUR-ist”
“BBC!”  Now he is pointing to himself, to his black T shirt on which is written:  
Independent 4 ever.  Buah Batu Corps.  BBC

The eagle logo with coat of arms suggests that it is some kind of organisation.  I presume it has something to do with Indonesian Independence.  He points outside, repeats “BBC!” and I see a large poster at the side of the road bearing the same logo.  I also notice as we drive along that some shops have Buah Batu written on the signs, and so we deduce that it must also be the name of the district we are in.
I am desperate for the loo and ask the driver, Pak Asep (Mr Asep), if there is anywhere we can stop.   The next thing I know, we have parked outside what seems to be a Motorcycle gang hangout.  Large, black motorbikes are lined up outside a house- -shop- -shack, the walls of which are covered with black banners bearing the same logo and similar words:
I walk hesitantly into the room where I find five men, all dressed similarly in black, with the same logo either on a t-shirt or on a jacket.   I get an uncomfortable feeling, as if I have walked into the underground Headquarters of a Nationalist organisation.   That is until Mr Asep introduces me to his “friends” and they jump up, shout “halo!”, shake my hand and ask if they can have their photo taken with me, each one wearing a broad smile, in front of the BBC banner.

Mr Asep
Many photographs later, I am able to extricate myself, do what I have come here to do in a little hole in the ground, and follow Mr Asep back to the Angkot to continue on our journey to Kampung.                                            
A local woman of around 30 joins us for a stretch.  She speaks a little English and we ask her about old buildings in the area.   She isn’t able to offer us any insights and so we slip into the usual conversation: “where are you from?”, “where are you going?”, “are you married?”.  “you’re not married?”,  “I’m sorry”,  she says. Before exiting, she gives recommendations to the driver about where it is we might want to be going.   I interject with “We want to go to Kampung!”    “Yes, yes” she says but continues indicating for Mr Asep to go straight on “Terus”.
After 5 more minutes, the Angkot slows.  
“Ini Kampung”  Pak Asep informs us as he stops the vehicle outside a relatively official looking building at a small roundabout.
“Ok great, let’s get out”.  In my happiness and surprise to have found this place, and given that we have pretty much commandeered the Angkot, I don’t feel I can pay him only 4000 Rupiah for the two of us. As I count out note upon note, he kindly stops me, somewhere in between overpayment and insult, by holding up his hand to say “that’s enough”.
We wander along small paths which run perpendicular from the main village road.  On each side are box-houses, some painted in bright colours.   A man is drying what look like patties made of pink rice in the sun. 

Photo by Laurence Green

He cannot tell us about the old buildings and we see no sign of any Dutch influence yet.  We continue down this path for another20 metres where it comes to an abrupt end.  In front, almost all that can be seen are emerald green paddy fields.
Turning back on ourselves, we find another path and come across a courtyard next to a line of one-storey box rooms.  A man in a conical hat and holding a brush made of branches tied together is sweeping leaves away from a large concrete square on which he is drying the rice that has just been harvested.  He welcomes us in and allows us to walk along the side of the square to the end of the property where we find a beautiful view, a lush green garden against a bright blue sky.  I hear a hissing sound and immediately realise what is standing just to the side of us, poised in indecision.  A year living in a village in China, near the Laos border, taught me that geese are not to be messed with – they are vicious, wild and more effective guards than dogs!  Laurence, it seems, does not know this.  He moves closer, positioning his camera like bait.  Both the old man and I start to make noises for him to GET AWAY FROM THE GOOSE!   The goose starts to hiss louder and waddle surprisingly fast in our direction.  I move quickly and continue a fast walk, past the drying rice, straight out of the front gate and back up the road, waving my thanks behind me.    

We stop on the roadside to buy sachets of 3-in-1 coffee for which the shop owner prepares some hot water.  
“So this is kampung,  ini kampung” I ponder out load
“Yes yes.  Ini kampung” 
“Ada rumah Belanda disini?”  “Any dutch house here?”  
He doesn’t appear to understand.
“And there?” (I don’t know how to say “there” so I point and gesture over the rice paddies towards the next settlement with my arm as if throwing something.  “What is over there?”
“No no.  I mean next place.   Ini Bandung” I point behind us.    “Ini Kampung”  I point to my feet.  “Ini what?” I throw my arm again in front of me.  “Over there what name?  Apa nama?”
“But here is Kampung”
“Yes, ini Kampung”
“So over there is what … apa?”
“Oh shit”!  I laugh out loud which interrupts Laurence’s gesticulating as he tries to converse with the shop owner’s little girl.
I have let myself get carried away as usual.   Lofty ideas have masked a realisation that should have come a lot sooner:   My family had stayed in a place further out from the centre, towards the Kampungs (villages), not in the Kampung.  There is no actual place called Kampung. I suddenly can’t imagine a beautiful Colonial style home in this place.   I can now imagine clearly what would have been here in the 1940s:  bamboo houses, a clean river and not much else.
A young guy who has seen that we are struggling with our communication and has stopped his car to help, tells us that there are literally hundreds of kampungs in the vicinity of Bandung.  He looks concerned -maybe it was all that gesticulating.  He says that if we can tell him the name of the one we want to visit, he will gladly take us there!    


  1. awesome, I love the rice particles in the shower!

  2. “I think it’s raining inside your heart”..well that is essential for any good writer!