Sometimes a song gets tangled in with life, and the threads twist together for a while. That happened to me a few months ago during a trip to Indonesia. As I walked around Jakarta and Surabaya, Robert Wyatt’s song “Catholic Architecture” (from his 1991 album Dondestan) kept nibbling at the edges of my mind, tugging my perceptions. It goes like this:
A white house with a folly
A tower attached.
On the side
A hand painted saint
Peeps over a high wall
Which surrounds the white house.
His loving gaze
By a line of broken glass
On top of the high wall.
Or the stray cat,
And receive his loving blessing
In loving lacerated
I was in Indonesia for work, not vacation, spending most of my time with a variety of dedicated educators from a number of local schools and universities. I was more than well looked after, with many a memorable meal and tours of the local sights. But I was also grateful for the snatches of time alone. A succession of nice restaurants and malls starts to feel unreal after a while, and in the end malls are sterile, and dirt is the earth. And I never feel as if I have actually been somewhere until I can go for a walk on my own and take in the surroundings, whatever they are. I am in Indonesia, I found myself thinking, and want to have really been there. So one afternoon in the second week of my stay I seized the chance to wander along the street by the hotel; tricky, without a sidewalk, but fascinating.
I walk past some tiny in-the-front-room-of-a-house restaurants (called ‘warung’). Best not to eat in there, after regular warnings about choosing food sources carefully and westerners usually getting upset stomachs when they come here. Past some disused-looking industrial buildings, then across the road. An interesting task in itself, this: four lanes of constant traffic and no formal mechanisms for crossing that my outsider’s eye could discern. Driving here apparently means driving as close to everything else as possible to create paths through the melee, and constantly warning others with the horn of impending collisions. But watch the locals and you figure out how to do it, stepping into the flow with a confident gesture. It works remarkably well. Eventually there is a big enough gap and I walk a little way through the slum along the river on the other side of the street.
The river’s pretty filthy, though folk are fishing in it. The slum’s a slum. The hotel opposite is luxurious, palm trees, swimming pool, spa packages, cocktail happy hour. I am as grateful as anyone for my air-conditioned room after teaching all day, but as I walk I wish for a moment I were staying somewhere more…normal. Earlier I was taken to lunch at a crowded, seven-story, city-block-sized mall full of expensive stores. Bose. Black Canyon Coffee. Starbucks. Adidas. Exorbitant Chinese remedies. Pop music. Designer clothes. A delightful tea store, where I was sat down and given a tasting of a splendid oolong. The aroma of the tea, the care with which it was prepared, the beautiful cups (I bought two) give me a burst of happiness that makes me forget my iPad when I leave; they come running after me with it, all smiles, as I rejoin the throngs of shoppers. I was told Jakarta has more malls than any other city, and they are going up all over Surabaya too. Alongside the tiny shacks and tents and stalls at the side of the road selling food and shoes and cell phone cases. Then in the afternoon I walk along a row of slum dwellings with a couple of rickshaw drivers asleep in their vehicles outside. Trash everywhere. Some nice-looking, colorful clothes hanging out to dry. Children playing gleefully. A cheery “Hello mister!” in English from a guy with a group of other guys either collecting or dumping trash with a truck, not sure which. A stray cat, and a cockerel. It seems curious that I, US-dwelling Brit that I am, am walking along the edge of a slum on an Indonesian island, and being greeting by someone who speaks a language I don’t know, and I don’t have the slightest feeling of any gulf of foreignness. It’s normal and we are human beings. It’s the same teaching seminars for educators during the day. So we’re from different languages and cultures and ethnicities. But we’re also all human, all living, trying, failing. And I’m staying at the nice hotel, inside the fence, behind the security barrier with the uniformed security guy who is so polite as he ushers me through; here I am an insider. No line of “broken glass/cemented”, but still. Did the saint lacerate his hands too, climbing in? Or trying to see out?
As often when traveling, I find myself looking at the faces of people I meet in passing – people at the mall, people at checkouts, people riding motor scooters past us on the road – and trying to imagine their lives, their hopes, joys, fears, hurts. Thinking: I just coincided with this person in space and time, but almost certainly will never ever do so again. And they have a whole, real life like mine. Such a simple, obvious thought. But trying to imagine all the people who briefly enter the periphery of my experience as real, whole people, whole worlds of experience, all of them, is like looking at the sky and trying to visualize how many stars there are out there. Each of them are people you could get to know, care for. There are 4 million people in this city alone. Another 8-10 million in Jakarta. What’s it like to be God and know and love all and each of them? Along the sides of the roads are myriad small stalls selling food and other things. What’s it like to spend your life sitting at the roadside selling cassava in Surabaya? What’s the texture of the joys and griefs? And the girl who sold me a gift for my family in the hotel foyer has been to the UK to study English, and several US cable TV channels are available 24 hours in my room showing me Nicholas Cage blowing things up and Julia Roberts flirting with Tom Hanks, and my translator at the seminars is completing his doctorate in theology at a Belgian university.
And I taught seminars for fellow teachers here and in Jakarta. They all teach generations of students, and many of them lead schools. Good, competent, earnest people (can I really teach them anything?). And the preacher at the church this morning graduated from the seminary at my college last March and recognized me and knew who I was. We sang How Great Thou Art and And Can it Be in simultaneous Bahasa Indonesia and Chinese, and I recited the creed in Bahasa with several hundred Indonesians, managing to pick out “Mary” and “Pontius Pilate”, and sat in a pew with hymn books and understood not a word of the sermon. I was welcomed as a guest from the pulpit and various Chinese Indonesians with no English shook my hand and smiled at me at the end of the service. And there’s a minaret right by the hotel, with speakers on it for the Muslim call to prayer, and large groups kneel to pray in the street. Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population. And on the TV in the hotel lobby Mariah Carey is cavorting in her underwear.
There’s a metal detector and a guard with a detector wand at the door of the hotel, but when I enter in a suit he apologizes and waves the wand vaguely in my direction before letting me in. It’s the same at the malls. Twice I am served by girls at checkouts in excellent English but see them break into big friendly grins (I think, or at least hope, of pleasure rather than amusement) when I say “terimah kasi” (thank you). Like elsewhere in the world it’s remarkable how even a minimal effort to speak the language is received as goodwill. Another line of demarcation that doesn’t need the broken glass. Surabaya means shark-crocodile, and there are statues of an intertwined shark and crocodile. It’s on a delta. There’s a mud volcano nearby that resulted from drilling in the wrong place and it’s been spewing mud for six years and has buried several villages. At the supermarket you can buy bags of what look like curly chips but are made from dried chicken intestine. It’s all new to me. But my willingness to eat and sincerely praise anything my hosts test me with seems to erode another line of separation and helps create times of fellowship. Best not to wander into the warung, though. The mall is polished clean, and silo-sized posters of European models on the high walls dare us to buy, their serene gazes selling perfume and fashion while more metal detectors at the entrance ensure that only the congregation of consumers enter and the stray cats stay outside.
It was not my first time in this kind of setting. And I’m not claiming insight or offering judgement. Half of my perceptions here are quite likely mistaken, blundering outsider that I was. And none of this is news, and it all exists in my own country; it’s hardly necessary to go overseas to see poverty ranged alongside wealth or the carnival of cultural difference on display or the mall training us all in unreality. But it’s still an awful lot to take in whenever you actually try to take it in. And I found myself thinking about Robert Wyatt, whose lyric manages to be short and poignant yet somehow evokes some of the complexity of the insides and outsides, the grace and the exclusion, the love and the lacerations. And I found myself thinking about intruders, and God, and the benevolent saints of consumerism, the new catholicity, beckoning from billboards, and outsiders and insiders, and the loving gaze, and the line of broken glass.
David Smith currently lives in the Midwestern United States, where he teaches, writes, and enjoys a very wide range of music, with regard to which he claims no expertise whatsoever beyond that of a dedicated and appreciative listener.
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