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Some Impressions of Indonesia

by Lane Tauroa Published in Te Ao Hou No. 50 (March 1965)

The Rev. Lane Tauroa, a Methodist Minister, is in Indonesia under the sponsorship of the National Council of Churches.

‘Oh for some sunshine!’ On numerous occasions I had expressed this longing as I shivered through a King Country winter. However, at this moment I would welcome a real dinkum hoary King Country frost, or a biting wind straight off Ruapehu. I've basked in twelve months of sunshine and heat and I've ‘had it’.

In West Java it is perpetual summer, perpetual harvest. I don't mean that we never have rain; we certainly do. In the wet season we can count on a tropical downpour daily. However the heat remains, so that one becomes sticky rather than cool.

The Whole Region a Huge Garden

The rich volcanic soil of West Java, with the rain and the sunshine, make the region a huge garden. Crop succeeds crop without interruption. On the flats, paddy (rice) is the chief crop. The paddy marches up the lower slopes of the hills by way of terraces. Higher up are vegetables of every kind and higher still are the tea-shrubs. The fruit includes pine-apple, coconut, papaya, mango, banana, apukuk, durian, oranges, and other tropical varieties. These are all delicious, but it takes a little courage to try durian, which has a revolting smell, just like our corn steeped in water.

My family and I landed in Djakarta, a city about 3,500,000, in December 1963. Stepping from the plane on to the tarmac was like walking into an oven. I am a little more acclimatised now, but still find the heat oppressive. I've trudged the streets of New York in high summer, and it can be hot there. However, in New York (or Auckland for that matter) one can look forward to fall and winter. Here in Java there is no autumn or winter, simply a wet season and a dry season.

Djakarta is a bustling, crowded city. The streets are jammed with traffic. Cars, trucks, buses, bemos (three-wheeled taxi), bicycles, betjaks, jostle for right-of-way. Motor traffic includes the latest model cars from Europe, the United States, Japan and Russia. Of course there are jalopies, but I couldn't help noticing the new cars, for there were many models which I had read about in motoring magazines but had never seen before.

Startling Contrast Between Rich and Poor

Some folk in Indonesia are wealthy, but there are many more who are desperately poor. Soon after our arrival we were on the way to a shopping centre, when we had to stop at a railway crossing. Ahead of us was a long line of chromium-plated, fish-tailed vehicles whose occupants were being beseiged by numerous beggars dressed in rags — men, women, and children. The contrast between rich and poor is startling to a New Zealander.

The betjak is the cheapest form of public transport available. It is a three-wheeled bicycle (two front wheels, one rear) pedalled by the driver, which has seating for two passengers. Since there is no set fare, bargaining goes on until an acceptable price is reached. The intending passenger holds most of the cards, for betjak men badly need the money, or they would not be engaged in such strenuous work. In Djakarta's heat, the job is not easy.

Largely Planned by the Dutch

The Dutch were largely responsible for planning the city. It stands on reclaimed swamp land, drained by canals. These sluggishly-flowing canals serve many of Djakarta's residents as toilet, wash-room and bathing-pool. Thus the sights along the canals are apt to be somewhat of a shock to a new arrival.

Summarising my first impressions, I would describe Djakarta as a city of oppressive heat and hordes of people, which exhibits a heart-breaking contrast between rich and poor. I have seen men, and women too, shouldering loads which would give a good New Zealand union man duodenal ulcers in a month. I have no hankering to live in Djakarta, and was glad when we were able to take up residence in Bandung, in West Java.

Bandung is much cooler than Djakarta and a much more pleasant city to live and work in. The main shopping and residential area stands in a basin at the foot of encircling hills. According to legend, this basin was formerly a lake.

Legend of a Prince's Courtship

In the dim and misty past a certain prince, Sang-Kuriang, fell in love with a beautiful woman, Dajang Sumbi. Princess Dajang Sumbi was Sang-Kuriang's mother, but he didn't know that. He wooed her, and she did everything possible to discourage him. She set him a number of tasks which he was to complete between sundown of one day and cock-crow of the next day. One task was to fill the basin with water, and another was to build a canoe for use on the lake thus created.

Nothing daunted, Sang-Kuriang set to work and to Dajang Sumbi's horror it became evident that he would complete his tasks within the allotted time. The Princess therefore played a trick. Although cock-crow was still some hours away, she began threshing paddy. (Rice is separated by threshing in the same way that in New Zealand cocksfoot seed is separated from the stalk.) When the roosters heard someone at work, they thought that it was time to rise and shine, so they began to crow. In this way Dajang Sumbi was able to claim that Sang-Kuriang had failed to accomplish his tasks within the time limit he had been set.

Furious at Being Tricked

The poor man was puzzled and downcast, but when he discovered that he had been tricked his disappointment changed to rage, and he chased after Princess Dajang Sumbi, intending to take her by force. However she narrowly escaped him by springing up to heaven from a mountain which stands near the city of Bogor. Sang-Kuriang was naturally very bitter, and in his rage he overturned the canoe which he had built, allowing the waters of the lake to escape. That canoe is visible today in the form of a certain mountain, the shape of an overturned canoe, which stands near Bandung. Incidentally it is a volcano, and still mildly active. Standing on the lip of the crater I was reminded of Rotorua: same awful sulphur smell, boiling mud, and steam escaping from vents in the earth.

Bandung is a university city with between 35,000 and 40,000 students. There are two State Universities, and at least thirteen other universities which are run by private organisations. My work is with Christian students. Christians are a minority group in Indonesia, numbering approximately 6,000,000 in a total population of 104,000,000. Although most Indonesians are Moslem, people are free to preach and teach. This is largely due to President Sukarno. Some years ago, the extreme Moslems demanded that Indonesia should become an Islamic State, and that Islam should be the only recognised religion. But the President insisted that the people should have religious freedom.

My work brings me into contact with Christian and non-Christian students from all of the islands of the Republic of Indonesia. The young people here are engaged in the great adventure of nation-building. They are determined that the Indonesian Revolution shall be carried through to a successful conclusion. To understand the Indonesian Revolution one must know something of recent Indonesian history. Briefly, this is as follows.

Dutch Colonization and its Consequences

Round about 1600, the Dutch landed in Java. By 1750 they had a monopoly of all the trade, and ruled Java and certain of the outer islands. In their dealings with the indigenous folk they relied upon the traditional chiefs and princes, and upon force of arms when the chiefs and princes proved uncooperative. Indonesians became third-class citizens in their own land. Above them in rank, status and wealth were the middle-men — Chinese, Indians and Arabs. Above the middle-men were the Europeans, who determined the destiny of the peoples. From then until 1945, the indigenous people had little or no say in the affairs of their own land. They were the servants, the hod-carriers, a part of the economic apparatus of the European. There were a few Indonesians who enjoyed certain privileges, chiefly ‘friendly’ princes and chiefs, but no Indonesian could ever hope to equal the European in status or rank. At various times and places they rebelled against Dutch rule, but without success.

The area in which we live was formerly forbidden to non-Europeans. Is it any wonder that after gaining control of their own affairs, the Indonesians should have renamed it ‘Merdeka’ (Freedom).

In 1942 the Dutch were defeated by the Japanese. The Japanese made greater use of Indonesians in government administration than the Dutch had done, and as the tides of war turned against them they were forced to accede more and more to the demands of the Indonesian nationalists. With the defeat of the Japanese, President Sukarno and other leaders pressed for full independence. Not all the indigenous folk were in favour of independence, in fact some fought on behalf of the Dutch. The Dutch, assisted by the British, attempted to regain control of Indonesia. The nationalists resisted, and bitter fighting followed. Eventually the nationalists triumphed, and on 17 August 1945, President Sukarno proclaimed the establishment of the Republic of Indonesia.

The Revolution was against the Dutch colonialists in the first place, but it was also against the old traditional and feudalistic way of life represented by the princes and chiefs. Since 1945 the energies of the Indonesian people have been directed toward overthrowing the old feudalistic way of life, resisting colonialism in every form, and building a new nation. The tasks confronting them, then and now, are tremendous. Technicians, administrators, teachers and doctors had to be trained, for under colonialism few Indonesians had had the opportunity to acquire training. Furthermore the numerous ‘suku’ (ethnic groups) had to be welded into a single nation, and this is a tremendous task in itself.

Many Different Languages and Customs

Indonesia consists of many islands, and each island group has its own language, traditions and customs. For instance, in Sumatra there is a group of people known as the Batak peoples. Within this group there are five subgroups, each with its own language and customs. Besides the Bataks there are in Sumatra other ethnic groups, such as the Minangkabau and the Atjeh. These also have their own language and customs.

West Java (including Bandung) is the territory of the 15,000,000 Sundanese people. Sundanese language and customs and traditions differ from those of the people of Sumatra and also from those of the 60,000,000 Javanese. Altogether there are over 360 different ethnic groups or nationalities in the Republic. If you recall how difficult it has been for us Maoris to forget our tribal differences and work together, you should be able to appreciate the difficulties which confront President Sukarno and his advisers.

A New National Language

One of their first tasks was to choose a national language. This is Bahasa Indonesia, which is now used by the government and taught in all schools. Formerly the folk from different ethnic groups could communicate with each other either with difficulty or not at all, but today they can do this. Thus Bahasa Indonesia has been a means of knitting the peoples of the Republic together.

Bahasa Indonesia is a fairly ‘new’ language, and is still growing. Consequently there are some who find that it is inadequate to express their deepest feelings and thoughts. I was takling to a gentleman who said, ‘While we understand and speak Bahasa Indonesia, we like to use Sunda too. Sunda speaks to our heart, and is sweet to our ear’. His statement reminded me of comments often heard from our own kaumatua regarding the Maori language.

In Central Java I visited two ancient temples. One (Borobudur) is a Buddhist temple, and the other (Prambanan) is dedicated to the Hindu god Cewa. Both temples are colossal stone structures, intricately carved. And both temples were erected between 700-900 A.D., which is a very long time ago. Other ethnic groups have an equally long history behind them, so it is not surprising that there should be rivalries between them. Despite the differences, President Sukarno has welded the people of Indonesia into a nation, and he has done so with the minimum use of force.

Young People's Determination and Drive

The young people with whom I have contact are determined that Indonesia will become strong economically, culturally and militarily. In order that they may contribute to the building of their nation they seek education at the highest level with a determination and drive which puts us to shame. If we had half their drive, enthusiasm, and willingness to sacrifice, our universities would be crowded with Maori students. Economically the majority of New Zealanders, Maori and Pakeha, are better off than the average Indonesian family. It isn't opportunity or means we lack, but vision. These young people have a vision, and they are prepared to undergo all manner of privation that their vision may become a reality.

This doesn't mean that they are always serious and never gay—far from it. They are as gay and friendly a people as can be found anywhere. When we arrived in Bandung we were for a time in charge of a student hostel. In the evening the boys would sit out on the back verandah with their guitars, and sing the songs of Batakland, of Sunda, Java, and the Celebes, with a few of the latest American hits thrown in for good measure. They enjoyed teaching our two children to sing Indonesian songs and it sounds strange to hear our children bellowing the Indonesian national anthem at the top of their voices, when they do not know the New Zealand national anthem. I must confess that I cannot help them much in this matter, because I am not sure of it myself. It would be a good thing if we New Zealanders heard a little more of our own national anthem (I know we have one) and much less of ‘God Save the Queen’. Maybe we would then be able to persuade the peoples of Asia that we are indeed a people distinct from the English, with a mind of our own, and not simply errand boys for England.

However to get back to the subject, the boys also indulged in the more serious recreation of chess. They would sit for hours at the chess-board, pondering move and counter-move. Other sports were volley-ball, badminton and soccer — although I don't call playing soccer in this heat a sport.

Interested in the Maori People

Like all students, the boys liked to talk. They were interested in all we could tell them of New Zealand generally, and of ourselves in particular. Until 1945 the Indonesian experience of contact with Europeans was that of master (European) and servant (Indonesian). The students here asked me how we, the Maori, fared under ‘colonialism’. I've tried to be as honest as I know how, and have said that while some of us have certain grievances against our European countrymen, yet on the whole we have no pressing reasons for wanting to see them depart. Hope I'm right!

Bandung is sometimes called the ‘Paris of Indonesia’. The girls are graceful and very chic, especially the Indonesian-Chinese, who usually have the means to indulge their clothes-sense. All the students usually wear Western-style dress, but on formal occasions they do wear their national costumes, the sarong and kebaja. In the villages the women wear sarong and kebaja all the time.

Rice is the Staple Food

In West Java rice is the staple food, garnished with vegetable and spiced with sambal. Sambal is a concoction of various peppers and chilis which is guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes of non-Indonesians. Meat is available at a price, as is also fish, fowl and other temping morsels, but rice is the mainstay. With the increase in population (1,500,000 a year) rice supplies are becoming inadequate, and the government is trying to persuade people to accept such substitutes as corn. However it is not an easy matter to change the eating-habits of centuries. One man said to me, ‘We may have half-a-dozen tasty dishes, but without rice we don't feel as though we've eaten’.

An Enlightening Experience

Our stay here has been an enlightening experience. Until a year ago I knew Indonesia only through such sources as newspaper reports. The picture I had was of a strange, unpredictable people given to violence, living in a land of snakes, tigers and buffalo. Well, the snakes, tigers, monkeys and buffalo are here, and certainly the language and customs of the people are different. Indonesia is indeed a land of contrasts; out in the paddy-field one may watch a man ploughing with oxen and ancient wooden plough, while in the skies overhead jet-fighters dive and twist. Shepherd boys with their sheep hug the grass verge of the street, while Mercedes Benz, Chevs, Dodges and Chryslers flash by. Palatial homes cling to the cool slopes of the hills, while on the flats the poorer people crowd into one room or prepare to spend the night under a bridge. Yet despite all the differences, Indonesians are much like you and me; like us they desire a full and happy life, and the opportunity for all to use their talents to the fullest extent.

The Rev. Lane Tauroa was born in Russell. He obtained his B.A. degree at Auckland University in 1953 and later did some advanced study in New York. Before leaving New Zealand he was pastor in the King Country Methodist Circuit, living at Te Kuiti.

He and his wife, formerly Mavis Dickie of Dunedin, have two small children.


Owner/SourceTe Ao Hou
DateMar 1965
Linked toLane Matarae Tauroa (Occupation)

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