Walking on Yogya

Deborah Homsher


TRAVEL WARNING – INDONESIA, United States Department of State, April 10, 2003. This Travel Warning is being issued to remind U.S. citizens of the ongoing security threats in Indonesia. … As security is increased at official U.S. facilities, terrorists will seek softer targets. These may include facilities where Americans are known to live, congregate, or visit, especially hotels, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, school, or outdoor recreation events. … Americans who travel to or reside in Indonesia despite this Travel Warning should keep a low profile, varying times and routes for all required travel, remaining acutely aware of their immediate environment. …  There is potential for violence and unrest; both can erupt with little forewarning. Threats, including the possibility of terrorist activity, exist in various parts of Indonesia, including Jakarta, Yogyakarta, and Surabaya, as well as Kalimantan and Sulawesi.

My husband and I flew to Java despite the State Department’s Travel Warnings a few months after the October 2002 bombing at Kuta Beach in Bali and a few months before US troops entered Iraq. He planned to teach and I to edit in Yogyakarta. The advisories spoke of unrest, threats, even eruptions, but it wasn’t long before we noticed that terrorists seeking places “where Americans are known to live, congregate, or visit” would in fact have a tough time in Yogya, since few Americans could be spotted there. Souvenir, silver, and batik shops, used-paperback stores, travel agencies, and restaurants that catered to Western tourists were mostly empty. Rows of tourist shops in the Prawirotaman and Sosrowijayan neighborhoods stood drowsing. Yet while the tourist trade languished, Western outlets catering to Indonesians’ taste for imports were full of life. Bomb the palatial, glassed Kentucky Fried Chicken on Jalan Kaliurang or the Dunkin Donuts across the street, bomb the Pizza Hut by the Monument, bomb the Wendy’s, McDonalds, or Texas Chicken in dizzy Malioboro Mall, and the victims would be middle-class Javanese, most in their teens and twenties.

In Yogyakarta, we were about as far from home as we could get on a round globe: at 8 am in New York state, it’s 8 pm in Java. For us it was an exotic place, its fruits and terrain seemingly derived from nautical fiction we’d read as undergraduates. North of Yogya looms an active volcano, Gunung Merapi, almost three thousand meters tall and lonely, with a small white cloud always tugging at its peak. It is as plainly shaped as a child’s drawing of a mountain, standing without companions, a shade darker than sky blue. On most days Merapi simply disappears, however, because it wraps itself in clouds, a common practice for volcanoes. Flying over Java towards the islands of Bali or Lombok, vacationers can spot, here and there, volcanoes ringed in clouds, rising from land that is otherwise sunny.

We were attracted by the blue volcano, not so much because it figured as an icon for suppressed threat, but because it seemed fiction incarnate. So one day we motorbiked north, almost to Merapi’s flank, to Kaliurang. Kaliurang is a green, elevated, comparatively cool, poor town, dotted with barebones accommodations for weekenders (wismas); some advertise that they provide air panas (hot water) in the rooms. We found the entrance to the national park, climbed to a lookout point in the forest, but still only saw clouds. A real volcano stood hidden before our eyes and high above our heads.

At that lookout point, we met three people, two shirtless men and a woman, Indonesians, none of whom spoke English. When we appeared on the trail, the larger of the two men cried out for us to come closer, then asked, “Dari mana?” When we answered, “Kami dari Amerika,” “we are from America,” he called out something about perang, “war,” a word that I had looked up in a dictionary earlier that week. It was March 26, about six days after the US had started bombing Iraq.

In the patchy conversation that followed, either my husband or I offered up our usual phrase, “war is not good,” perang tidak bagus, and tried to communicate the identity of Al Gore and the fact that we had voted for him, though the words, or word (algore), sounded empty even to our ears. We tried explaining that we were from a small town in New York state and that New York state is not New York City, we drew a useless map in the dust and named California and Texas as examples of states. He said he was a poor man, miskin, that he was thirty-eight years old but owned no house, that he wanted to move to America, wanted us to take him to America, and then he laughed.

We bought two soft drinks from the woman, a vendor, her small legs furrowed with iron muscle, feet shod in rubber sandals, who had carried a crate of bottled soda pop and water, slung against her back with a strip of cloth, up the steep path. Because the men laughed, we knew she overcharged us, but we had made it a policy to be willingly overcharged—within limits—for the sake of our consciences and, in the smallest way, for international trade.

After we had left this trio on the mountain, we walked around the town of Kaliurang, noting flowers that looked like zinnias and others that were certainly roses, painted houses, roosters, inexplicably good-natured dogs, an aging, dreamy, local playground ringed in barbed wire, and tile-roofed public lodgings, most apparently vacant, sunk behind sharp gates. Back near our hotel, children seeing us, our pink faces and unblack hair, called “hello! hello!” in English, and one mother in a car honked so we would wave at her child and yell “Hello!” Which we did, feeling American. The next morning we still could not see Merapi.

Paul Wolfowitz, US Deputy Secretary of Defense, served as US ambassador to Indonesia for three years during the Reagan administration. He once climbed Mount Merapi with guides, then hiked back down and made a handsome speech about it. An Indonesian professor, Pak Djoko, told us that his countrymen really liked Wolfowitz when he was ambassador, but now they felt betrayed because the Deputy Secretary and his friends had tagged Indonesia as a nation infested with terrorists. Hence the Travel Warnings. Hence, in part, the steep decline in tourism and foreign investment, which struck at an economy already knocked off its feet by the Asian economic crisis of 1997. Hence, in part, the increase in numbers of Indonesian orang miskin, poor people.

Our attempts to make sense of Indonesia would be entangled with our efforts to make sense of the United States, that newly faraway land where Paul Wolfowitz and his colleagues stood at the peak of influence. Both these huge national entities, archipelagic Indonesia and gargantuan America, loomed directly, obscurely, in and out of sight.


When we first landed in Yogyakarta, we were driven to the Puri Artha Hotel and signed up to take language lessons at the Puri Bahasa, just down the street. The hotel was mostly empty, so we ate breakfast surrounded by ornate red gloom, a few caged songbirds, and large fish perpetually unfolding in small tanks. After breakfast, we would return to our room, pack up our Eddie Bauer bag with books, pens, and all portable valuables, then walk to our language class.

The sidestreet, Jalan Cendrawasih, is not long, but it felt long to me. Busy, hot, narrow, roaring with motorbikes and packed with open-air shops, it squeezed us, so we walked it single-file. I couldn’t yet categorize its activities or read many of the signs, didn’t understand that most public eateries in Yogya are warungs, food stalls roofed in tarps mounted on poles, didn’t see that motorbikes were being repaired and flat tires patched by the men sitting under tents around the corner. I did recognize daily a pyramid of bottled water at a shop that became one of our landmarks, but it took a few days before we dared to pass through the cloth walls of the Waroeng Steak & Shake and order dinner from the menu. Lucky for us, though we hardly realized it, the English language has cachet in urban Java, so many of the signs in the neighborhood displayed what were to us self-evident and sensible printed words: DRY CLEAN, LADIES AND GENTS, SOUND SYSTEM, FACIAL, INTERNET, and on the Steak & Shake menu, FRENCH FRIES, SIRLOIN, BLACKPEPPER STEAK.

Each morning, after our hike, we would reach the Puri Bahasa fence and surrender ourselves to our language teachers. The small, open-air classrooms at Puri, each named after a different Indonesian island and decorated with photos and stuff from that place, were furnished with oscillating fans and whiteboards, and shielded from the heavy heat by overhanging, clay-tiled eaves. We came there to learn Bahasa, the national language, which derives from a widespread trade lingua franca originally grounded in Peninsular Malaysia and Sumatra.

Bahasa is, categorically, a pidgin language, made to be learned quickly and to function in harbors and between boats. Nouns and verbs are unencumbered by cases, genders, declensions, or conjugations, so that students can begin hammering down simple sentences early. Some words in Bahasa cover lots of ground. Pakai, for instance, can suggest use, wear, or with: one can pakai a hammer, pakai a blouse, or drink tea pakai sugar. Bahasa is also a language quick to adopt words from other tongues. Thus: paspor, status, fleksibel, efektiv, ekslusif, normal, demokrasi, konfirmasi, revolusi, tradisi, kolusi, korupsi, nepotisme (and in the newspapers during March-April 2003, rekonstruksi, transisi, agresi).

I imagine fluency in languages to be like an act of flight and so looked forward to these lessons with zeal, even while anticipating disillusionment. It had been a long time since I’d tried to memorize new words. When one picks up a friend at the airport, does one menjamput or menjemput or menjempat . . . is there jam involved, and then a pat or a put? And why would anybody call an airplane a pesawat? Our lessons taught me, again, the queer fact that words have no substance. The word apple cannot be bit or thrown, though over time, with repeated use, it gains an illusory scent and shape.

Other lessons were inadvertently being taught at Puri. There we were reminded that a substantial percentage of people in the world speak more than one language, and Americans are known for our stolid monolingualism. Our teachers spoke both Javanese (or Balinese) and Bahasa and managed well in English. The Europeans we met spoke English capably; the Dutch used English not only to communicate with us, but to talk to the German girl and question their teachers. We were the poorest of everybody in this regard, and when the conflict in the UN Security Council intensified, between Britain and the US on one side and France, Germany, and Russia on the other, concerning the imposition of a deadline for the disarmament of Iraq, Hugh and I tended to stay in our classroom during breaks and chat with each other in low tones, keeping a “low profile,” as the Travel Warning advised.

I felt, in swoops, unpredictably, humility and pride, variously personal and national. Spoken language, the wet hot air underneath it and effort behind it, had my attention. I hated watching on TV the Iraqi information minister, Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf, sprinkling transparent lies into potted microphones. Perhaps worse, to watch sloganeering George W. Bush or Donald Rumsfeld in front of the cameras. Bush spoke with such effort in public, he was so dependent on rehearsed phrases—those doggish words that always jump out of the thickets when summoned—he gave the impression of a student trying to express himself in a foreign language. “The UN will have a vital role.” Mr. President, what specifically do you mean by a vital role? “I mean what I say. A vital role.” I knew exactly how this felt, and it was maddening to watch him.

But American travelers our age—with sons in and past college—can’t be humble all the time. Now and then, unpredictably, one of us would dread the prospect of going to class and talking like children (worse than children) with our teachers, two motherly women in their twenties. By early April, in fact, after the ugliest surprises at Um Qasr and Basra, the “pockets of resistance,” and the agonizing friendly-fire accidents had become yesterday’s Iraq news, I was tired of feeling doubtful, dim, weak, and apologetic in the classrooms of Puri Bahasa. I could not listen one more time to the visiting Frenchman explain (in rapid Bahasa) that whenever anybody on the streets of Yogya greeted him with the usual “Hello meester!”, he corrected them by calling back, “I am not from America, I am from France!” Saya tidak dari Amerika, saya dari Prancis!

“Why you JACKASS!” I thought, without attempting a translation, briefly forgetting my support for anti-Iraq-war France and its individual representatives.

This retort was never spoken—I swallowed it—and so the taste lingers: full of pepper and smoke, the flavor of my mother tongue.


Yogyakarta is both a princely and collegiate city, with its own sultan, Hamengkubuwono X, and a population of approximately 450,000. It is surrounded by rice paddy fields, some still being worked with oxen or water buffalo, and in the streets one sees horses pulling simple carriages and men pedaling becak (pedicabs). These vehicles move calmly through the rocketing motorcycle traffic, which is especially wild in Yogya, we were told, because of all the college students.

The equatorial climate enables many Indonesians to manage year-round with motorcycles rather than cars, just as it enables them to live in houses and eat in restaurants that lack solid walls. The university house we eventually rented, a spacious place set up to accommodate Norwegian exchange students, was missing a wall, though it took us a few days to notice the fact. The main room, with its heavy desks and a round wood table big enough to seat seven absent Norwegians, was lit by an expanse of tall windows fore and aft, each overlaid with white, honeycomb grillwork and mosquito netting, but there was no glass in the windows along the back of the house.

Given such conditions, American visitors in Yogya find themselves comparatively more outdoors when indoors, and more fully outdoors when outdoors. People conducting business, eating, or commuting are generally more exposed to view. And to asphalt. On the streets, traffic acrobatics are commonplace, the margins of error breathtaking. Motorcyclists balance computer monitors on their thighs, carry long rolled rugs under their arms, cruise with wood cages full of doves strongly strapped to their back, and transport wide-eyed children, who hang on tight with slender arms and legs, like practiced equestrians. Mothers of infants ride tucked behind their husbands with baby cradled in the slendang, a strip of cloth passed behind the neck and tied at the shoulder. No one comes to a full stop before merging; the merge is a liquid act of faith. There are accidents. The Jakarta Post reported that motorbike-related injuries throughout Southeast Asia create a significant drag on the region’s economies.

I asked an anthropology professor how it could be that the Javanese, famed for their ritualistic good manners, would create a city swarming with daredevil bikers. He answered, “Oh, that is easy. The streets are our frontier.”

The protective physical, legal, and regulatory networks constructed to shield middle-class Americans from harm have not been duplicated in Indonesia, usually because they are too expensive or would seem outlandish if exported. Viewed from Yogya, therefore, Americans do not appear to be dangerously exposed, susceptible to internal or international threats. Instead they look seat-belted, child-seated, safety-capped, chlorinated, insured, heavily armored, sea shielded, richly safe.

The risks we incurred by visiting Indonesia were small compared to the risks most Indonesians outmaneuvered daily. That said, we were still enough there, in body, to be exposed to the logic, heat, action, and size of the place. When every morning Yogya filled the streets with its everyday business, a walk outdoors confirmed that the US State Department’s snapshot of the archipelago was taken from a great height, with a special State Department lens. Terrorist threats, hell, what about the Number 10 bus?

In this mood, on my walks, I was pleased to make even small observations, perhaps because they seemed to prove my growing competence and flexibility as a temporary resident and thus insure my safety. When I learned to recognize capped bottles of bensin (gasoline) for sale on Jalan Colombo and distinguish them from similarly shaped bottles, stoppered with bits of banana leaf, also containing amber liquid, sold from the campus pushcarts, the accomplishment was disproportionately satisfying. So I walked onto campus and bought a serving of the darker liquid from a scar-faced man and drank it from a plastic bag with a straw. I didn’t know exactly what I was swallowing (tamarind juice flavored with raw brown sugar, perhaps gula jawa rendered from coconut flower syrup), but I could say to myself, “That’s not gasoline!”

My husband and I didn’t always look for reassurance in Yogya. Occasionally, gingerly, we looked for trouble. The April 10 Travel Warning ordered Americans in Indonesia to “avoid political demonstrations, which sometimes turn violent.” Our house was open to sounds from the Universitas Gadjah Mada campus, and we kept our ears open, having been told that the UGM traffic circle was a favorite staging area for protesters. Then early one morning we did hear amplified, angry voices, but couldn’t understand the words. Hugh heeded the warnings and circled around to reach his university office. Later we learned that this crowd was made up of Semarang residents who had bussed down to UGM to protest the university’s ownership of tea plantations in the north: they wanted their land back. It was a domestic scuffle, unconcerned with American foreign policy. Then, a few weeks later, we heard amplifiers again. It was Sunday morning, March 23, a few days after the bombing of Iraq had begun. We decided to go look. Stepping out the door, I felt an emptiness in my legs, which seemed especially long and white that morning. Ahead, beside the broad campus lawn, were masses of people and parked vehicles. And in the air a few balloons.

We crossed Jalan Kaliurang to join the crowd. Making our way forward, we found the boulevard to the traffic circle lined with warungs and vendors selling CDs, wooden puzzles, spatulas and forks, bristling fruit. There were plenty of kids, some acrobats on the grass, and a bubble-stuff man, who sold us two bubble kits each made from 1) a discarded 35mm film canister filled with liquid soap, and 2) a plastic straw, outfitted at the end with a piece of curved, thread-wrapped wire, bent to make a loop. We had discovered the Sunday morning UGM flea market. The amplifier belonged to a rock band, sponsored by a company selling Boom! breath mints. Young Indonesian women in matching T-shirts were handing out free mints. I accepted packs of breath mints from the second girl who offered them. The first one who thrust out her hand had startled me and made me hop … a result of “remaining acutely aware of [my] immediate environment.”

In their homes during the next weeks, the Javanese would be watching grisly pictures of Iraqi casualties broadcast on television. These pictures would continue to be aired through April and into May, after missile attacks on Baghdad had ceased. Metro TV, a private twenty-four-hour Jakarta news station licensed after the fall of Suharto, played and replayed a popular video montage: film clips of injured Iraqi civilians were overlaid with the face of an Indonesian girl singing a plaintive song, in Bahasa Indonesia, to the young Iraqi amputees, asking how they would live now without their limbs.

The message found an audience. In an airport magazine shop, a Muslim woman (identifiable by the jilbab she wore covering her head) spotted me, asked where I was from, and when I answered, “Amerika,” let me know strongly in Bahasa, with gestures, that she had cried when she saw the little Iraqi boy whose arms were blown off by American bombs. Cried and cried, she said, drawing lines down her cheeks with her finger and staring into my face. I had thought that I wanted to confront, measure, acknowledge just such critiques of my country, but found myself, minutes after this fair encounter, inventing defensive retorts in Bahasa: “Ibu, anda sedih juga untuk orang-orang mati di Aceh, Timor, dan Papua dari TNI? Mengapa? Orang-orang itu tidak di TV kemarin? “Ibu, are you sad too for people dead in Aceh, East Timor, and Papua from Indonesian military? Why? Those people not on television yesterday?”

Popular sentiment in Indonesia ran (and of course continues to run) strongly against the American invasion of Iraq. One of our polite young Javanese language teachers, who also wore the jilbab, tried to explain a joke to us that was making the rounds and had something to do with the soul of Hitler entering George W. Bush. A UGM religious studies graduate student who had been interviewing fundamentalist Muslims in Yogyakarta told me that the action in Iraq would now be added to the list of other aggressions that fundamentalists interpret as evidence of a worldwide conspiracy against their co-religionists. Thus stories of Muslim victims in Iraq would be recorded, and posted online, beside stories of Muslim victims in Pakistan, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Palestine, and, closer to home, in Central Sulawesi and in Maluku (especially the island of Ambon), where clashes between Indonesian Christians and Indonesian Muslims have been deadly.

On the whole, however, Indonesians’ public reaction to the war in Iraq was muted, a notable fact in this reputedly volatile country. The largest anti-war demonstration during the American bombing campaign took place in Jakarta, involved between 500,000 and a million persons, and sparked no violence. When in Jakarta a group of young men tried to pull open the doors of a taxi containing tourists, the action made international news. Anti-war demonstrations took place in Yogyakarta as well, but were comparatively small, peaceful, sometimes candlelit, and ringed by polisi; we heard that a Spanish woman who took part in one such protest was arrested and warned that if she tried it again her visa would be canceled.

Our friends and acquaintances proposed a number of reasons to explain the apparent calm, including: heightened police presence, efforts by influential political leaders to moderate public response, a generalized post-Kuta Beach readiness to suppress more fiery incidents that would lead to more Travel Warnings, and, last but not least, the fact that Indonesians had so many pressing domestic concerns to claim their attention. As Americans we were conspicuous, but we were never as target-like as the Travel Warning had led us to anticipate. Indonesians on their own ground were actively more exposed.

Exchange Rate

Lunch for two at the student cafeteria, about US$1.80. Grilled fish and chicken dinner for two, about US$6.40. Twenty-minute becak ride slightly uphill from the Malioboro market to the intersection near UGM, an effort that leaves the tukang becak covered in sweat, about US$2.20. Ticket to a performance of traditional Javanese dance, involving nine elaborately costumed dancers and a gamelan musical ensemble, where you and your companion are the only paying guests in the audience (kids from the kampung watch through the fence), about US$3.30, which, times two, constitutes the outdoor theatre’s entire take for the evening. One month’s rent for an unfurnished student room, 70,000 rupiah (to find the approximate US dollar amount for early 2003, cross off three zeros, divide by nine, then add a little. The exchange rate through most of our stay was 8,900 rupiah per one dollar). One month’s salary for a female factory worker in a zipper plant in East Java, 200,000 rupiah. One month’s salary for a female worker in one of the better textile factories (“Made in Indonesia”), 750,000 rupiah. One month’s salary for “our” security guard, 400,000 rupiah; for “our” cook and laundress, 300,000 rupiah.

Before we arrived in Indonesia, we were informed that any university house would come with a security guard who lived on the premises, and that we, the renters, would be responsible for paying his wages. When a house did open up, we learned that the security guard’s wife, mother of his two young children, ages ten and two, would cook meals and do laundry for additional wages. We did not know any Anglos who cooked dinners for themselves in Indonesia; all either had cooks, ate with families, or went out to restaurants. When we moved in, we engaged in a round of pidgin negotiations with Pak W. and Bu Supri, who had been living in the Rumah Norwegia (Norway House) for years, watching over the property, serving the guests. Their salaries had been set by UGM’s housing office, but a number of other questions needed to be settled.

dollar-xsWe had some problems in the beginning. One night, after a bungled, broken-English, broken-Bahasa negotiating session, I lay in bed with my hands and feet weirdly on fire. Greasy, gut swollen, conscience stricken, hot and mad, enflamed by suspicions involving pennies, I felt helpless in the roomy house that had been prepared for our arrival while knowing I was far from helpless. This was a colonial experience, felt in the flesh.

Middle-class Indonesian households commonly retain pembantu, servants, especially a female cook, living di belakang, “in the back.” In every Anglo and Indonesian house we visited, we encountered pembantu serving meals, watching young children. Though the nation’s economy expanded dramatically from the 1960s up into the 1990s (during which time average life expectancy rose from 46 to 63 years), it is still categorically a “developing” country, with cheap labor readily available. Since the economic and political crises of 1997-8, increasing numbers of Indonesians have lost work (the country’s unemployment rate is estimated at 50 percent) and been forced to earn a living in the “informal sector.” The commercial activities that fill the sidewalks of Yogya—food warungs, fruit stands, motorcycle repair “shops,” kiosks selling keys, license plates, bottles of gasoline—are all inventions of the informal sector, evidence of resourcefulness and hard times.

Thus, from a certain angle, Pak’s stable job as a security guard employed by the university could be seen as enviable. But there were other angles. Pak and Bu’s combined monthly income, supplemented by a gratuity, amounted approximately to the cost of nine bottles of Chardonnay purchased out of a back storage room in a grocery store at Malioboro Mall.

Pak, Bu, and their two young sons live rent-free di belakang, in two small bedrooms and an open, roofed patio accessible through a door in the kitchen. They all liked watching television, but had no TV di belakang, so often when we came home somebody would be settled on the rattan couch in the main room with the set switched on. If my husband and I had no more work to do at our computers, then we usually retreated to the bedroom and read used paperbacks until five o’clock, BBC news hour, when we claimed the TV . . . and brought out the wine. In April, around five o’clock, Bugs Bunny cartoons often fizzed out to make way for pictures of drifting green smoke: “shock and awe” in nighttime Baghdad.

We could never know for sure what Pak and Bu thought of the two Americans who were undeniably (and yet not fully, because so far out of context) us. Life with pembantu felt artificial, theatrical. The manicured garden behind the main house was surrounded by a wall with a gap in one side covered by an old grass mat. Pak and Bu passed from their bare plot into “our” formal garden through that way. Since the mat was broken, we could glimpse their stuff—a rough outdoor table, a bicycle, a few drying racks for laundry. The contrasts in our accommodations were so extreme, so easy to read, that everyday objects appeared intentionally scuffed, excessively shadowed, like stage props.

A few times when I knelt at the TV in the late afternoon to search for Jim Lehrer’s kindly, swollen visage, I found the channel set at Al-Jazeera. During April, our cable company broadcast Al-Jazeera dubbed in Bahasa Indonesia. My husband and I watched occasionally to see what images it featured (Iraqi women standing by hospital beds, heavily bandaged Iraqi men and children lying in hospital beds, Iraqis begging for water, over-dressed American soldiers pushing Iraqis around), but since we couldn’t understand any of the Arabic or much of the Bahasa, we never kept it on for long. Apparently Pak and Bu watched Al-Jazeera’s critical coverage of the America-Iraq war without asking or fearing (I hope) our disapproval. This was a small matter, but satisfying to me because it promised that my husband and I didn’t really govern—or own—the family living behind the kitchen door.

We were all, after all, postcolonials, interacting in postcolonial Southeast Asia. The Dutch had once claimed Indonesia, the French governed Vietnam, the English took Burma, Malaysia, and India, Spain ruled the Philippines, America laid her hands on the Philippines and Vietnam, but those Western regimes are all finished now. Indonesians had overthrown the Dutch East Indies colonial regime and recently jettisoned their own paternalistic, corrupt dictator and his insatiable family without intervention from any Western nation. The weightless condition of a visitor in such a country is almost ghostly . . . soon you will disappear.

That said, after levering myself into a becak alongside my 6’5” husband and being pedaled smoothly crosstown by a small, tightly strong, brown-skinned Asian man, I felt how it might be to live like a sahib or Dutch regent’s wife, to wield authority, to have that colonial weight. The white man’s (a) burden. Twenty-first century economic imperialism, called globalization, smells a lot like plain old colonialism, and in Indonesia for a few months my husband and I became notably tall, rich folk living in a house with native servants. In that context, we were transformed: we grew physically large and inarticulate just as American soldiers, our great white shadows, were driving into Iraq. 


When my mother, who once lived in Saudi Arabia, learned that we were going to Indonesia and that it was a Muslim country, she tried to lend me the long-sleeved, high-necked, ankle-length, loose dress she had worn in Riyadh twenty years earlier and asked if we would hire a driver. I told her no and informed her coolly, “Indonesia is not Saudi Arabia.”

A few months later, the assistant cultural attaché at the US Embassy in Jakarta, who met us in his office for a welcome-to-the-country appointment, mentioned in passing that the jilbab—the Muslim veil—was becoming more popular in Indonesia. Here was a glimmer of information on the fashions, and perhaps the politics, of women in the country we had chosen to visit. This man’s office was disordered, with boxes on the floor, because he and the cultural attaché were taking turns at their post; all non-essential embassy personnel had been sent out of the country and the staff reduced, for security reasons.

Hugh and I were fresh off the plane, newly born into the landscape. Departing from the Embassy, we were led, as I remember, around the metal detector (no need to pass through when exiting), past a number of Embassy guards, to the outdoor security booth where we reclaimed our passports, then out past the high barbed fence and down the sidewalk, behind the concrete barricade erected to stop car bombers. A small anti-US demonstration was in progress beyond the barricade, led by a few antic masked men. Spotting us, one of them trotted straight to my husband, who is tall even by US standards, bowed low from the waist, and handed him an incomprehensible petition. Hugh, who didn’t want to take it, took it.

The encounter spooked both of us. Later in our hotel room, which was dim, butterscotch-colored, and crammed with suitcases still belted in royal blue airport security tape, we would confess to each other that we had wanted the nearby police, or our Fulbright escort, to stop the man before he got so close. Maybe it was the mask that unnerved us . . . the mask and the barricade and the barbed wire and the guards and the leisurely (amused?) policemen, and our realization that American officials in Jakarta chose to be so heavily fenced, so strongly bolted indoors, yet were ready to send us into the interior of Indonesia, whatever Indonesia was, because we had said we wanted to go there.

There became “here.” In Yogyakarta, in our first week, we sat down at the table with our youngest language teacher, who wore the jilbab. She patiently, with authority, laid out her flash cards, and we followed the exercises. Then, at the start of our second class, she stood up flustered because the pin securing her veil at the neck was loose. When she hurried away to refasten herself, I wondered if she would have been so anxiously modest in other company, or if we Americans undid her.

I was curious about The Veil as an Asian costume component and a political sign. And because I was once a girl, I wondered about the veil as a covering that creates tenderly private woman’s flesh, just as long ago I wondered about brassieres. (How does it feel when you take it off? What about the elasticized ones?) When our teacher started up from her chair, pinching her scarf shut with her fingertips, I wanted to catch her and say, “Here now, calm down child, we’ve seen lots of necks. The things we’ve seen! Piercings, nipples, thongs, coeds in boxer shorts with CORNELL blazed across their butts. You don’t have to cover yourself for us. We are so old. And we are from America.”

My American eye looked for evidence that Indonesian women wearing the jilbab were not anti-Western, not essentially anti-US (us). In this half-conscious, anxious pursuit, I was quick to spot signs that the women around me had compromised with the West, or been compromised by it . . . that they had bit the apple. So when I spotted a clutch of Muslim schoolgirls, dressed identically in blue skirts, cream blouses, blue veils, with plump molded running shoes peeking out from under their hems, or when in Malioboro Mall I noticed veiled women descending the escalators as I ascended, all of us floating among Texas Chicken, California Fried Chicken, Sports Station, Kidz Station, Nautica, Polo, Athlete’s Foot, Golf House, Reebok, Red Earth, and Planet Surf shops, it reassured me. In short, in Yogya, I discovered myself interpreting Indonesians’ enjoyment of Western pop and commercial incursions as signs of moderation and accommodation. Snapped into a booth in the Yogya Pizza Hut, I felt proprietary and hospitable, like the original Lego character from a Fast Food set who had opened her plastic house to wizards and astronauts.

For my husband and I, the most accessible women were students and teachers, including our teachers at Puri Bahasa and Hugh’s American Studies graduate students, most of them bi- and tri-lingual women in their twenties, variously scarved and bare-headed, who palled around with each other on campus, and who once, in a group near the cafeteria, generously thrust a bag of potato chips at Hugh because they had no other gift. I remember these young women as smart and gracious. Of course there were others on campus who seemed to us unapproachable. Occasionally I would spot an entirely black-clad woman, in long skirts and a veil that fell below her wrists and covered all of her face except her eyes, turning a corner or floating up a stairway. In Yogya, Muslim women wearing the full veil appeared to be about as rare as Anglos. Because of her physical presence, her elective, unfashionable oddity, this figure often impressed me as an emblem of democracy. At other times she appeared to be a willful shadow.

In Java, there are obviously lots of different veils in plenty of fabrics, colors, and lengths, some heavy with messages, others comparatively weightless. My attempts to read their significance repeatedly failed, because one of my eyes was usually unfocused, drifting West. 


On March 20, in the afternoon, we learned that American and British troops were driving into Iraq. A mechanical “click” had sounded after weeks of theatrical diplomacy and worldwide protest, and the green light flared on. There is relief when an action you can’t control starts. The stockmarket, feeling it, rallied, and we received confessional e-mails from friends who were invested in the stockmarket and opposed to the war.

We couldn’t get our times straight. The bombs were falling at night in Baghdad, reported by British newscasters—in London?—whom we watched before breakfast, and then again before dinner, from our couch in Yogyakarta. When the reporters spoke of “Thursday,” “Saturday,” or “last night,” the effect was dizzying. At last we gave up and let ourselves drift in the times, knowing at least that these bombs shown on TV had exploded in the past; we were not watching future explosions. In fact, there is a four-hour time difference between Yogyakarta and Baghdad. When it’s 7:34 in Yogyakarta, it’s 3:34 in Baghdad, so the sun would rise along the Tigris River about four hours after it shone on our volcano. We became aware of huge slices of the globe, variously lit, with reporters placed here and there, connected by wireless tech and chatting with one another’s images, exchanging cooperative questions and answers. And, after the sun rose in the right places, we saw pictures of Baghdad ruins, reportedly all “government buildings,” with flames waving out the windows.

Much was made of the “humanitarian aid” waiting in bulk just outside the port of Um Qasr, but delayed by “fierce pockets of resistance.” After a couple of days, it seemed that those “pockets” were expanding to become three-piece suits. We started to see pictures of heavily equipped American or British soldiers lying behind barricades, peering across bleak lots, or hurrying along walls, taking and returning fire. Bad news for The Coalition intensified. British helicopters crashed. Americans shot down a British Tornado fighter plane. An American soldier rolled fatal grenades into the tent of his compatriots. On Sunday, near An Nasiriyah, Marines were killed when a group of Iraqi soldiers sprang into action after feigning surrender.

On that same day, a group of Americans riding in the rear of a convoy were attacked, captured, and then displayed on Iraqi television. The US responded with fury, denouncing this breach in Geneva Convention protocol, but then a few commentators noted the fact that the Western media had broadcast pictures of trussed Iraqi POWs. Perhaps for this reason, the American POWs suddenly appeared, exposed, on our TV in Yogya. There was one crewcut kid with a look of stumped, childlike horror on his face. And I thought, “He is going to die. He’s alive today, but tomorrow or the next day he will be tortured and he will die. And I am looking at him.” That soldier’s capture nightmare (which was also sometimes my nightmare) had become actual. He couldn’t wake up from it. He was in their hands.

I know now that this soldier and his companions were rescued, not killed, and that US forces occupied Baghdad by mid-April. But I didn’t know that in late March. Then, appalled, pretzeled by my opposition to the war and simultaneous hope that American soldiers would quickly finish the business, I kept recalling that soldier’s face. In our black bedroom, when sleep eluded me, I imagined smashed doors, hooded men, shouts in a wrong language, the room suddenly crowded, a horrible light switched on. My own confused state—apologetic and defensive, pacifistic and patriotic—easily conjured up a band of masked avengers who would, with a crash! make everything plain.

Throughout the weeks after March 20, Yogya kept to its business. Anti-war protests occurred, but it seemed the police limited their schedules. One day my husband reported that he’d seen students massed at the traffic circle and I walked over to look, but by the time I arrived they were gone, replaced by the usual revolving carousel of motorcyclists. American fast food, English-language, and pop music remained unapologetically in evidence throughout the city. What had I expected, that Pizza Hut would collapse and fold up, like a tent warung, from shame or fear? The KFC stood lit, huge windows unbroken, full of customers. An Indonesian TV news station, whose reporters and guests all spoke Bahasa Indonesia, featured graphic headlines in English: Election Countdown! Headline News! Iraq under Attack! The Radisson locker room still piped wordless Broadway tunes for which we knew the words (“tum tum tum tum BUTTONS AND BOWS”). In a sidewalk warung, a beggar looking for tips parted the curtain and started to belt out, “When I was just a ‘lil bitty baby my momma done rocked me in the cradle …” We gave him coins and he disappeared like an angel.

The intense queerness of our situation was matched, even amplified, by the queerness of the war itself, which was billed so energetically by US spokespersons as a benevolent act of “liberation.” A massive, high-tech, largely invulnerable and invincible (at least that’s how it looked in early 2003) invasion force that repeatedly declares itself to be friendly is a queer beast indeed, monstrous when viewed from a distance.

During these weeks, my husband and I kept to our schedules. We swam every day at our usual time, thus failing to vary “times and routes for all required travel,” a maneuver recommended by the State Department. We answered e-mails assuring everybody that things seemed pretty safe, that Yogya was aman, calm, civil. If we kept a low profile, it was because we had work to finish. I was editing last-minute articles for the academic journal Indonesia. Hugh was grading papers and preparing classes on American short stories. As we worked, news on the TV began to change its tone. American tanks entered Baghdad. Saddam Hussein’s Revolutionary Guard troops disappeared, along with the Iraqi information minister and then Saddam Hussein himself. Where did they all go? TV apparently couldn’t show us, and few people asked. Cameras zoomed in on the ceilings and bathrooms of Saddam’s empty palaces, and then cut away to show big rusty barrels that did not contain Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The last journal essay I needed to edit before coming home was titled “Current Data on the Indonesian Military Elite,” a regular feature, traditionally signed by “The Editors.” I began work on the piece without thinking, but after a few pages started to grow nervous.

The essay described endemic corruption in the Indonesian military, reporting that efforts to reform the TNI (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, Indonesian Armed Forces) and reduce its direct influence on national politics had sputtered to a halt under Megawati’s regime. The authors explained that the Indonesian military receives only about 30 percent of its actual budget from the financially strapped government. Its territorial units therefore rely on “fundraising” activities, many criminal, that often involve the deliberate instigation of local conflicts which then justify the need for military “security services,” especially to protect multinational extraction industries—Freeport McMoran, Exxon-Mobil—from hassle. Freeport McMoran, a mining conglomerate with a shoddy human rights record, operates in Papua, Exxon-Mobil in Aceh. Separatist movements have long been active in these two resource-rich provinces at the eastern and western peripheries of Indonesia, and Aceh has now been further devastated by earthquake and tsunami. When the military stirs up trouble in these areas, it often blames separatist terrorists; since 9/11, the word terrorist has gained political leverage and proved useful for would-be pacifiers around the world. The essay reported that Indonesia’s soldiers had also hired themselves out as mercenaries and helped train the young Christian and Muslim men killing each other in Ambon. The authors noted, “Ironically, security forces are engendering insecurity as a survival strategy . . . ”

I edited this article as fast as I could, in two long sittings, then shot it back to our server and erased it from my laptop. I wasn’t scared for my physical safety, since I didn’t plan to travel to either Aceh or Papua, but I was nervous about online surveillance. We had been warned that wire security (credit card, phone, Internet) is lax in much of Southeast Asia and heard stories from friends living in Yogya who had found their VISA bills swollen with mysterious charges from Manila. I reassured myself by recalling that I was a very small fish in a vast pond, not much of a catch for anybody, and that Indonesia’s surveillance apparatus was surely understaffed because undoubtedly underfunded.

The article concluded by noting that George Bush’s administration had “orchestrated intensive anti-terrorist campaigns all over the world,” and that US pressure favoring heightened security had contributed to the “growing assertiveness of the military” in Indonesia. America’s politicized War on Terror had had far-reaching effects.

In June of 2003, after I had left Indonesia but my husband was still living there, the Indonesian military entered Aceh. Human rights organizations accused both the military and the separatist rebels of bloody violations: Acehnese schools were burnt, young men and boys executed, thousands of villagers displaced, food supplies cut off. As a result, the US State Department on June 12 issued a new Travel Warning that wasn’t much different from the old one (“defer all travel,” “violence can erupt with little forewarning”), except that it referred to Aceh specifically and told Americans to get out of there.

This warning scared me; I was afraid for Hugh. How soon the ground recedes! I could recall the independent, bustling heft of Yogya and my own insignificance in that real place, but couldn’t walk its streets anymore to anchor and instruct myself. So the country fell back into the distance and wrapped itself in clouds, and disturbing news reports set the whole place aglow, as if all the volcanoes were erupting and the earth cracking. One day an acquaintance mistakenly informed me that Americans were being ordered out of the country. I rushed to e-mail Hugh, and then waited for an answer. My stomach hurt. The next day he responded, saying basically, “What?” The big news: he’d been out to dinner with friends at the restaurant Milas and navigated our Honda motorbike all that way, south of Malioboro and back, after dark, no problem. 

My husband and I will never know if we skirted danger by a hairsbreadth while living in Yogyakarta. Bombs do explode in Indonesia. Two jihad organizations, the Laskar Jihad (which sent soldiers into Maluku to defend Muslims against Christians) and the Jemaah Islamiyah (an organization accused of involvement in the Bali bombing) have attracted international attention. Are they significant, do they constitute the early hot blast from an anti-Western, pro-Muslim volcano, or are they mostly smoke, small figures arranged to cast big shadows? The scholar John Sidel argues that the threat of jihad in Muslim Southeast Asia has been exaggerated by state security forces in America, Indonesia, and the Philippines for their own political ends, and that “the purveyors of jihad in both the Philippines and Indonesia are in fact waging a rear-guard, losing battle.” Based on my landed experience of Indonesia and my politics, I agree with his assessment. I believe our political leaders have justified their aggressive foreign policy by exaggerating the threat foreign terrorists pose to Americans at home, a strategy that has contributed not only to our electorate’s misunderstandings of the wide world, but also to misperceptions of ourselves and our place in that world. US citizens are not as threatened, exposed, vulnerable, and therefore justified in belligerence, as we are being encouraged to think.

 But I don’t know for sure. My reach (we only set foot on three of the archipelago’s six thousand populated islands), my fluency, my visit, were all too short to qualify me as a judge of the nation’s contemporary situation or future direction. That said, the visit did literally shake my bones and make my hair fall out, and I will not forget that Indonesia is actual. 

Deborah Homsher
Deborah Homsher is managing editor of Cornell University’s Southeast Asia Program Publications

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 6: Elections and Statesmen. March 2005 

I am indebted to the following articles for information on Indonesia: John T. Sidel, “Other Schools, Other Pilgrimages, Other Dreams: The Making and Unmaking of Jihad in Southeast Asia,” in Southeast Asia over Three Generations: Essays Presented to Benedict R. O’G. Anderson, ed. James T. Siegel and Audrey R. Kahin (Ithaca: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2003); and The Editors, “Current Data on the Indonesian Military Elite, February 1, 2001 through January 31, 2003,” Indonesia 75 (April 2003). Thanks also to the Fulbright Association and the American-Indonesian Exchange Foundation for their support.