Jono's wanderings

Journal and articles of a luckless pilgrim

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Delta dreaming

Three months ago, en route to Cambodia, our plane passed over the southern tip of Vietnam. I was entranced and alarmed by landscape below. It was a landscape very short on land. Great swathes of glistening grey water coursed incessantly through a flat collection of penisulas and islands that seemed to be struggling to remain above the tide. I realised that this must be the Mekong Delta - a region known only to me through my beloved atlas. But no atlas could convey the overwhelming complexity of the world of water below me. Even at the end of the dry season, the Delta looked as though it had been devastated by flood.

We left Phnom Penh aboard a small slim boat to Chau Doc just over the border in Vietnam. Though Chau Doc lies on the Bassac River, we kept speed by taking the wider Mekong before cutting through a canal to join the Bassac just after crossing the border. By the time we arrived it had been raining steadily for over an hour and we experienced a sensation hithero banished to the distant past - cold! Without a dong to our name we caught a lift in a cart attached to a racer bicycle to the local bank. The bank seemed deserted until we spotted the clerk slumbering behind the counter in a deckchair. He wasn't happy to be disturbed and abruptly told us the bank was closed. We went back into the rain to find a hotel. We spent the afternoon wandering the sodden markets and exploring the island across the river. Further downstream, the island is home to a large Cham community, but we saw only one Cham man resplendent in white with a sage like straggly beard. We stood outside a colourful temple and listened to a hundred nuns chanting
in unison. Back across the river we wound our way back to our room through flooded pungeant market stalls and fell into a deep sleep.

Straight after breakfast we caught another bicycle wagon to the holy Nui Sam (Sam Mountain). The bicycle was pedalled by a young sinewy man called Van who'd approached us next to a dessert cart the night before. Thereafter he appeared twice more. Later that night to advise us about the contents of steamed buns and again that Monday morning after breakfast. Persistance pays.

Nui Sam is only striking because abruptly from the pancake flat rice fields around it. The holy site is covered with temples and pagodas. From the main Tay An Pagoda at the foot of Nui Sam we set off to the summit. Though the morning had been almost chilly, the sun had since emerged creating an intensely humid heat. It didn't take long for us to become drenched with sweat. Nimble footed Van, clothed in long pants, long shirt and thongs, skipped up the steps ahead of us. The summit trail wound steeply through minature alters, tombs, cave pagodas, small shops and settlements. Towards the top we stopped to wipe our faces with wet towels and recline in hammocks to take in the incredible view. From the summit we could see the town of Chau Doc with the river behind it flowing onwards to the heart of the Delta. To the south a small canal flowed through distant hills to the South China Sea.

All four of our legs were shaking from the exertion in the heat. After a quick steam and massage in a highway brothel we were sufficiently rejuvenated to depart Chau Doc and Van rode us to the bus station. For the princely sum of 22,500 dong (US$1.40) we were assured a small portion of the back row of a minibus bound for Cantho. For the initial minutes of our journey, before another passenger was rammed between us, we were seated next to a masked woman. Though modesty had prevented me from noticing, Nat drew my attention to some unusual bulges under the woman's dark loosely fitted clothes. Her waist and shoulders were heavily padded and at first i thought she was wearing some strangely configured back brace. Then we noticed that alarming bulge of her pants near feet. The woman was naturally diminuative so these Michelin Man antics aroused our curiousity.

Not far out of town we stopped outside of a small sunken shopfront where young girls shelled thousands of snails. The bus conducter rushed out and returned with three heavily packed rectangular bags which he shoved through the window next to my head without ceremony. The masked puff daddy beckoned for us to pass the bags to her. And so it was that we became accessories in what we were to learn was a cigarette smuggling racket.

Sharing three seats with three others (one of whom is bulging with tobacco) was never going to be comfortable. I had to keep shifting my weight between buttocks to stop one from falling asleep. But the changing cast of passengers of the minibus kept my mind occupied so it didn't have to dwell on matters corpural. As we reached the outskirts of Cantho, the other passengers began to eye the road suspiciously. If police were to stop our bus, they would fine the smugglers (a large proportion of us) heavily. The glances to the street became increasingly desperate as the bus lurched to a stop in front of a sprawling mechanic shop. The sliding door flew open to allow puffdaddy and her similarly inflated counterpart from the front of the bus to make a mad dash to greasy safety. An older woman, hithero discreet, exited with them and extolled them to run towards two men dancing from side to side at the rear of the shop. All the while the remaining passengers head's swivelled back and forth between the road and the shop. The woman stumbled and one fell under their awkward burdens, but soon made it inside the shop. As the did so our bus lurched away from the curb and hurtled back into the traffic. It was perhaps the most suspicious looking criminal operation i had ever witnessed.

We woke before five and were on the river besides Cantho as the sun began to filter through low lying clouds. Together with produce laden craft we glided towards the Caing Rai markets. We arrived in spectacular light. Dozens of boats (big colourful barges, and all types of long boats) bobbed with serene early morning calmness while their occupants amicably conducted commerce. Each boat specialised in only one or two types of produce. A barge might be filled with a three thousand pineapples or a small dugout would sit low in the water under the weight of a big pink pile of dragonfruit. Barges displayed their produce by tying samples to poles above their decks making it easy for customers to find what they are looking for.

After drifting peacefully amongst the traders we pulled up next to a small boat selling hot coffee. As we sipped shots of sweet expresso, some men on a big barge opposite called over to us. "You are very handsome" our guide translated for us. And when i thanked them they began lobbing their sole produce item towards me - turnips. As i caught each one i kept it in my hands to discourage excessive generosity, but to no avail. My beauty was worth seven turnips that morning. They laughed at our counter-offer of bananas saying "we have these all the time".

We caught another crowded minibus to Vinh Long. At the Bassac ferry crossing all men, except me, left the bus, huddled together on the rain swept ferry deck and then reboarded the bus on the other side. I was happy to be exempted from this procedure despite the effeminate slur. The bus dropped us on the far outskirts of town and we caught a motorbike powered carriage to the docks near the central markets. Through tour agents and shady portside characters we made enquiries about getting to the offshore islands to stay with local families. We were quoted big prices for big tours and extortionate fees for safe passage across the Mekong. Then a woman in traditional clothes told us there was a passenger ferry to An Binh island on the opposite bank. After lunch we took the short journey across. It cost 500 dong (3 cents).

On the ferry we felt a little uneasy. We had no contacts, no addresses, no map and not even an idea where a willing family could be found. What if we couldn't find a family to stay with? We coud always catch the ferry back and start again we reasoned. As we disembarked it was one of the few times that we actually hoped to be hassled by people offering services. A motorbike taxi driver called out to us and i eyed him hesitantly. Then an older man stepped forward and used the precious word - "Homestay". That was how we met Chin who proceeded to guide us to his home amongst the fruit orchards. It was still raining after we'd settled into our room complete with bamboo mat. But Chin encouraged us to use his motorbike to explore the island. After our positive experience in Kratie we attempted to take him up on his offer.

At about 3pm that day two elderly men in conical hats were peacefully pedalling along the quiet main road that bisects the fruit orchards. Suddenly a manic foreigner in a bright blue shirt revved heavily up a sideramp and stopped in front of them. He then accelerated off the road, salling into a papaya tree and careering into the ditch below. I must have leapt from the bike before it ploughed into the dirt in the ditch below the road because aside from a few cuts to my leg i was unscathed. The bike was not so lucky. The whole family and Nat had followed my jerky trek along the narrow winding path to the road and were there to witness my folly. We dragged the bike back to the road and Chin's son rode it back home safely. Then we went for a tour of the island on the back of Chin's children's bikes instead! It was a great trip through lush plantations, across many streams, but i couldn't shake the feeling that the whole island had already learned about the accident. Whole groups of people on the side of the road would burst into laughter upon our approach. Young riders would pull up to us, glance meaningfully at the damaged bike, smile and accelerate ahead. I was content to play the fool.

After a tense but congenial negotiation about compensation for the bike we got rides to the top of the northern most island in the group. This was an epic motorbike road. We arrived at a small drinks stall that doubled as a ferry terminal and sipped coconuts until the ferry to Cai Be arrived. At Cai Be we walked through town without a plan until a tropical downpour pinned us down under market canopy. As the storm relented we caught motorbikes to the main highway and boarded a bus to Saigon.

Thursday to Sunday
I enjoyed three days with Nat in Saigon. Great food, long tunnels, kissing parks, terrible masseuses, and friendly dogs. Then it was time for me to leave. The taxi waited while we said our undefined goodbyes. And then we were alone...

Thursday, June 23, 2005

One Fine Day in Kratie

Since the road to Kratie was upgraded last year, the boat stopped running. Prior to the upgrade most sensible people for the smooth transit up the river instead of the jolted bus ride along the pot holed road past Kampong Cham. But a quicker, smoother and cheaper bus trip has put the boat company out of business and the bus is the only way to travel now.

After many lazy, lingering weekends in Phnom Penh I was feeling restless. Time hangs around your neck like a weight in the city. Whiling it away in bars and cafes is pleasant enough, but do this too much and life becomes bland. But it's not just the weekends. Much of my week can seem like an extension of this leisure time. My 'working' hours would be best described as an orgy of procrastination if there was an activity I was seeking to avoid. But I have arrived at a time of political friction and restructure. We are at a standstill and staff are in a state of constant inactivity. The lunch break has crept up to three hours. Mindful of mental side effects of too much idleness I resolved to escape the city for at least a weekend.

Kratie is a small provincial town on the backroad to Laos. I could be forgiven for thinking otherwise when the swarm of touts converged on us at the bus station. Though the ten foreigners began their search for a hotel together, we were soon wedged apart by a tide of enterprising Khmers. We all ended up at different hotels. Nat and I spent the afternoon relaxing after the long bus journey. We wandered amongst the market stalls, drank coconuts by the river and ate and talked through the early evening with multilingual backpackers.

The next day, after an early breakfast, we set off on motorbikes along the small sealed road up the river. Fifteen kilometres north of Kratie, past small settlements of stilt houses, is the Kampi Pool - a deep water bowl in the wide expanse of the Mekong. With some fellow travellers, we hired a boat skippered by a surly youth soliciting extra funds. As he padelled slowly out into the vastness of the river it started to happen. "Oh" said the people at the front of the boat. "Wow" exclaimed the Mexican on the other side. I could hear the soft sloshing noises break the deep mid-river silence, but despite my bobbing swivling head, I could not yet see the source of my fellow passengers' amazement. But then I did.

A large sleek figure floated serenely through the water surface, arched its back and swooped below again, puncturing the water with a serene splosh. My first freshwater dolphin sighting! Flatnosed, but no less personable than their salt water cousins, the Irrawaddy or Mekong dolphins were once all through South East Asia. Now only a few roam the sparsely populated stretch of the Mekong from northern Cambodia to southern Laos. Very soon they we popping up all around us. At times they seemed to be approaching the boat and we half expected them to rise up right before us. But they would invariably dive deep underneath us and appear a safe distance from us on the other side. Gradually the dolphins appeared less frequently and after a while we stopped seeing them all together. A Dutch woman rebuked our reluctant skipper for letting us drift out of their territory. She pointed to some small islands up in the middle of the river and after much cajouling the boy rowed us out there. But all we found was silence from the river and soft haunting music floating towards us from the forest on the far bank. In their own time the dolphins started appearing to us again. They started jumping out in pairs and squirting water into the air. Everywhere we looked we saw them. For a brief time they conducted a breathtaking display of simultaneous jumping. At one point we saw five jump and roll back together. Then the show died down again and we saw them no more. The boy refused my request to take us to the rapids upstream, but I felt so calm and happy I didn't care.

Back on dry land we took the deteriorating road further north. The villages became more distinct and the fields tidier. We stopped at a small stand overlooking three elongated islands and sipped cane sugar juice. I was hot, dusty and tired and needed the sugar. Just off the road we entered a large Buddhist temple. We squatted on mats with the old caretakers and talked about kangaroo pouches and joeys. One of the men, a true bodhisattva, passed me a cup of holy rose water and i went outside to wash. As i wiped the sweat and dust from my face a small imp of a boy playfully taunted me with furtive hellos and then hid behind the temple colums. After i finished washing i tracked him to the corner of the temple to take my revenge but he had disapeared. We thanked the caretakers, made a donation and left by the back door. As we exited the imp appeared and launched another lateral hello attack. Our guide laughed and told us that the boy looked like a Khmer version of me.

We road back towards Kratie in the midday sun. It was the deep siesta and, save for the occassional stray chicken, traffic was light. We stopped at a small restaurant and ate spicy fish soup and vegetables and then pressed on to our final sight of the day.

To be continued...

Monday, May 30, 2005

Lost in Transition

Scooped deep in my new rattan chair, brow furrowed, I will my pen to the page. Unsure of where the ink may lead, I know that this morning I will write again. It's been a long time coming.

Soft and slow already, the sounds from the street beyond our gate are dimmed further by the meandering Albinoni through my headphones. Although still early, the heat is building steadily. The leaves on the trees that frame the wat's spire outside my window are sagged and still. A sly mosquito darts furtively around me. I'm too lazy to light another coil and decide to monitor its movements instead. The day biters can carry Dengue. Nothing is drawing me outside, but i have little incentive to remain inside the house for much longer. The weekends start slowly in Phnom Penh.

I've been here just over a month. I arrived in a convoy of other young (and younger) idealists. Hundreds more are scattered all over Asia and the Pacific - a benign infiltration into governments and NGOs from Tonga to Mongolia. At about $15,000 a pop, our government can't send out enough of us.

There is much of little consequence to say about my time here. But the seeds of consequence are being sown. It would, however, be disingenous to plough into the present without reference to the past. History provides a context and so must be accounted for.

When last I left you Dear Reader, I was bedded down with a mysterious illness in a high valley of north-eastern Lombok. Though those who will actually read this rant will know of my slow decline back to Australian domesticity, the hypothetical Dear Reader (to whom all objective narratives must be addressed) needs to be informed. I should also like to apologise to all my real readers who have logged onto this site in mild anticipation of its resumption. I have to confess to doing this myself over the previous months. There are only so many times one can be confronted by a selective and incomplete account of last year's Indonesian presidential elections without becoming just a little depressed. But we will now move beyond the valley and the politics of that time and space.

The illness I acquired in August was cunning. Its evolutionary adaptability to its host's pilgrim psychology was impressive and perhaps ensured its long term survival. In those initial days a morning might be spent in bed-bound delerium and lethary as my stomach cramped with a crescendo of contractions. In the late afternoon of that same day I would find my stomach calm and some energy return. I might wander slowly amongst the crops staring hopefully at the summits of surrounding volcanic peaks. But disapointment was axiomatic as the symptoms of my illness always returned - sometimes savagely.

It was on one of these post delerium walks, returning from the fields along a dusty road, that I encountered Asmuni. Many days previously he had arranged my transportation to Sembalum Lawang. He was taken aback at my lingering presence as he had assumed I had set off for the summit of Rinjani many days before. It was Asmuni who first sowed the seeds of restraint in my mind. He suggested I return with him to Mataram to see a doctor (I had already consulted a charming but ineffectual Balinese in the village). I refused that day, but a few days later he was back with the printout of an anxious message from Natalie. We set off for Mataram that evening.

I spent 10 days at Asmuni's house. Every day we ventured out by motorbike to consult doctors and procure pharmaceuticals. The doctors diagnosed confidently on a strict combinational methodology of outdated tests and misplaced intuition. I could scavenge almost anything at the chemists, but without proper packaging, I could never tell if the drugs were out of date or even real. I still remember the feeling of despondency while paying 1000 rupiah (less than 20 cents) for four tablets of fazigen. Asmuni's wife, Anik, cooked me three meals a day - the meal's contents varying with each new theory about my illness. I slept alone in one bedroom while the three children piled into their parent's bed. Asmuni insisted they slept like this even without guests around. Fed up with inept doctors I took to self-diagnosis and treatment. After a heavy hit of tinadozole, which caused my skin to tingle beneath the surface, I awoke with renewed energy and free from pain. By now I had made several friends in the neighbourhood and spent much of my free time visiting them for cups of tea. The following day, a Friday, I felt better still. In my euphoria I delved once more into the planning of my journey eastwards. But I awoke Saturday with severe cramps and shooting pains across my body. It was clear that I needed proper medical treatment. I arranged admission to a private hospital in Bali.

I spent eight days in the hospital in Denpasar - a world away from the hedonism of Kuta. My treatment involved swallowing copious amounts of pills at precise times throughout the day. The weeks of solitude had produced a compliant patient who dutifully followed all but the most doubtful of medical instructions. The nurses were courteous and plentiful, but they overwhelmed me with their care. It was not unusual for five nurses to appear at my door enquiring after the success of a morning motion. However after my fifth day of heavy doses of flagyl I began to suffer waves of nausea. Whereas upon admission, I adopted a routine of short morning walks, by day five I was literally bed ridden. Deprived of any meaningful company my mind started to whirl in cycles of unhelpful thoughts. I had only enough mental fortitude to retreat and by the time I was discharged I had a flight to Sydney. I spent my last day in Indonesia (in comparably good health) on a beach marvelling at the almost perfect symetry of historial repetition.

Though I had been feeling better in the days before my return, I promptly feel sick again on arrival in Sydney. My initial reaction was of curious relief for I had been agonising about returning to full health and concombitant regret. But in time I learned how misplaced such sentiments were.

The mystery illness was now a month old and showed no signs of abating. Over the months ahead it would continue to defy diagnosis. Its pattern became no more discernable. For the next four months leading up to Christmas I spent nearly half the time suffering bouts of cramping and fatigue and the rest recovering. I lost a lot of weight. Natalie had just resigned from her work and together I wanted to resume travels as soon as possible. Often such a possibility seemed imminent. Each recovery felt absolute. My stomach would go still then relax, and my strength would dramatically return. The lifting of the weight of despondency would allow my mind to freshen with modest hopes for the near future. Thus each relapse seemed to me a grosse violation of my future and it sometimes took me days to accept the reality of my condition. I slowly learned to adjust by taking comfort in small pleasures - a good book, a small walk or a wholesome bowl of soup. But my long term happiness was only sustained by the amazing support of my sweet.

Things turned around as they often do. I abandoned further plans of travel and drew increasing pleasure from a sedentary life. My health slowly became more reliable. There were many further setbacks, but the general trajectory was a lot more positive. There is much that could be written about these eight months of limbo, but I have not the heart for it at present. I was seldom bored, cultivating many trivial interests. But during no other period of my life have I so lacked direction. Life was not so much something I imposed my will on but something that just happened to me. There's probably a lesson there somewhere but I don't yet pretend to know what it is.

On 22 April 2005 I traded in that life for the chance to work here in Cambodia. It was not an easy decision to make. I have not returned to full health and still fear the implications of a relapse. But for better or worse I am here and it is about this intriguing place that you shall be hearing from now on...

Friday, August 13, 2004

The Year of Voting Frequently

Late in the evening of 26 July the Indonesian General Elections Commission (KPU) confirmed what had been clear for the past week by announcing the names of the top two candidates in the country's first ever direct presidential election. The result was supposed to be announced by the close of business, but the Commission was forced to delay the determinative meeting after a small package exploded in the women's bathroom on the ground floor of the KPU building. The perpetrator had phoned ahead so the building was empty when the bomb went off, but its location and timing was sufficiently symbolic to ensure a flurry of speculation about the impact it the explosion would have on the future course of the election - the type of speculation the perpetrator presumably craved.

The KPU announced that a former general and security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (invariably known as SBY) had topped the count after receiving 33.57 percent of valid votes cast. SBY's former boss and the incumbent president Megawati Soekarnoputri was the second placed candidate with 26.61 percent of the vote. The announcement marked the likely end of the second of three stages of general elections to determine the nation's president in what is the most complicated and drawn out electoral process in the world.

Indonesian's first went to the polls on 5 April to vote for representatives in national, provincial and district assemblies. Amongst the 24 political parties that contested seats in the national People's Respresentative Assembly (DPR) only five won sufficient legislative seats (3 percent) or garnered enough of the popular vote (5 percent) to nominate a presidential and vice-presidential candidate. Oddly enough these parties were not obliged to nominate candidates from amongst their own ranks. And so on 19 May the KPU announced the following five presidential candidates: the incumbent Megawati, her polygamous Vice-PresidentHamzah Haz, the long time democracy advocate Amien Rais, the retired general and karaoke king Wiranto and the charismatic SBY. Almost two months later on 5 July Indonesians returned to polling booths to select their preferred candidates and 21 days later the aforementioned results were announced. But in a nation of 210 million people, spread amongst a vast archipelago of 16,000 islands, with a long history of corruption and nepotism and a nascent tradition of real democracy, the result was going to prove controversial.

Hamzah, perhaps the subject of significant disapproval after marrying and retaining four different women, only managed to garner 3 percent of votes. Rais, a popular and respected muslim leader, won a suitably respectable 14.66 percent of the vote. Both candidates fell well short of the leaders and following the KPU's announcement both candidates accepted the official result. But the result was not accepted by all and in this case the people's choice did not sit well with some embedded elite - figures from a dark political past who still wielded significant power.

Golkar was the state apparatus through and by which former President Soeharto so effectively and utterly controlled the Indonesian political system from its inception to Soeharto's fall in 1998. While Golkar suffered an expected fall from grace in the first free and fair elections of 1999, in the May 2004 DPR election Golkar won more seats than any other party. This led many to at speculate that, at best, the Indonesian people had a deep dissatisfaction with the new crop of political elites or fear, at worst, a growing desire amongst the population to return to a more predictable form of autocratic rule - the devil they knew. To further add to this consternation, the resurgent Golkar nominated as its presidential candidate the former chief of the armed forces, Gen (ret) Wiranto. The sense of consternation was particularly strong amongst human rights observers in the region because of Wiranto's alleged role in the atrocities committed in East Timor following that former Indonesian province's affirmative referendum for independence. On a ticket with Solahuddin Wahid (the younger brother of the enigmatic former President Abduraman Wahid), Wiranto won 22.15 percent of the popular vote.

Under Indonesian electoral law a canditate must win an outright majority in the first round of elections to be determined as President. Should no candidate win an outright majority, the two candidates who received the greatest number of votes must proceed to a second round of head to head presidential voting (resulting in a third round of general elections) before the President is determined. Although Wiranto's campaign won a sizeable 26,286,788 votes (out of 118,656,868 valid votes cast), his tally proved to be insufficient to carry him into the second round of presidential elections on 20 September. Or so it seemed...

Three days after the KPU's announcement, Wiranto filed a complaint with the newly created Constitutional Court claiming that he had lost 5.4 million votes due to inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the vote counting following the 5 July election. Were such a discrepancy to be recognised and the official results adjusted accordingly, Wiranto's tally would rise to approximately 31.6 million - a mere 100,000 more votes than that received by Megawati Soekarnoputri. The numbers involved were tantalisingly convenient to say the least.

In a situation reminicent of the butterfly ballot paper debacle in Florida, multitudes of Indonesian voters had double punched their ballot papers. The presidential ballot paper consisted of printed photographs of each set of presidential and vice-presidential candidates and was of no inconsequential length. For this reason it was presented to voters neatly and conveniently folded. However, an exceedingly high number of voters failed to completely unfold their ballot papers before punching a hole in the head of their preferred candidate. The results can be imagined. When initially inspected, the double punched ballot papers were immediately deemed invalid and many were thrown away. But when the KPU became aware of the extent of the problem they issued an urgent circular deeming double perforated ballots valid if the puncture passed through only one set of candidates heads - a state from which the voter's intent could be determined with sufficient accuracy and a situation that mercifully avoids an examination of dimpled or hanging chads.

Wiranto's legal team also accuse the KPU of turning a blind eye to a series of electoral violations, including vote-buying. And it is fair to say that neither of Wiranto's claims are without foundation if rumours are to be believed.

Mega's running mate, Hasyim Muzaadi - the non-active chair of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) the country's largest muslim organisation, was accused of having his campaign workers bribe influential muslim clerics in Central and East Java. Hasyim acknowledged he had given "donations" saying this was common practice when calling on a cleric, but insisted he had never attempted to buy their votes. For their part, the clerics denied ever receiving "donations".

Indonesian presidential election law states that candidates may be disqualified if they accept funds from sources whoese identity is unclear. Given this requirement, the corruption watchdogs TII and ICW saw fit to highlight that 15 of the individual and corporate contributers to SBY's campaign were all fictitious. Despite this obstacles, these non-existant entities managed to contribute 3.5 billion rupiah to the campaign. When the watchdogs looked at Mega's campaign records they detected 30 sources of finance that they considered dubious. One listed donor (a genuine PDI-P supporter) of 75 million rupiah was found living in a shabby dilapidated shack in Sulawesi. But a KPU commissioned audit into campaign sources put an end to the matter when it ruled that no further investigations into the matter were necessary. Putting pragmatism over principle a KPU member stated "we have learned that the candidates' campaign teams agreed to surrender funds from dubious sources to the state coffers, so no further legal measures should be taken. And so the show rolled on.

In many ways Wiranto's challenge was doomed to failure before it even reached the Constitutional Court. The number of votes involved was rightly seen as too conveniently coincidental. People could not understand how he could prove that the missing votes were intended for him alone. Wasn't it more likely that all candidates were effected roughtly equally by the KPU blunder? Could Wiranto show that his campaign manouvers were beyond reproach? But the most telling sign of his impending failure was the news that senior Golkar figures and other imbedded elites were already making overtures to Megawati. The rug was being pulled from under him.

In any event, Wiranto's legal challenge got off to a bad start and never looked back. The KPU's legal teams adopted early offensive tactics demanding of Wiranto's lawyers the proof that the KPU's poor performance in tabulating votes had denied Wiranto a place in the September 20 runoff. Wiranto's legal team's response was to stall. On the first day of hearings they asked the Court for more time to gather evidence and witnesses. On the second day, when KPU lawyers challenged them to produce evidence of vote violations during the count, they said that they had left such evidence at their offices and would produce it the next day. At this point the Court saw fit to point out that it would only review the claimif solid evidence was going to be produced. The writing was on the wall.

On Monday the following week (11/8), the Court dismissed Wiranto's claim. The ruling was expected, but significant. It was the first time in Indonesian history that a presidential election dispute had been settled by the courts rather than through a series of backroom deals or a show of force. Before the ruling even Wiranto, a consumate imbedded elite, gave it the legitimacy it needed when he said the ruling "will be a victory for all of us who have guarded democracy by moving conflict from the streets to the court." Wiranto's loss was therefore utterly without irony.

Waiting in the Valley

I wrote these words on the morning of my fourth full day (Wednesday 11 August) in the village of Sembalun Lawang:

I arrived here late in the afternoon on Saturday. In the front seat of a pickup truck from Masbagit, Pak Diralam and i crossed the high ranges and made the slow winding descent into the valley below. But we did not come alone. In addition to a tray load of people and baggage, a virus lurking in my system decided to accompany me here and has been with me ever since.

Sembalun Lawang lies in a high fertile valley surrounded by rugged green mountains. To the west, and dominating the landscape, stands the mighty cone of Gunung Rinjani (3726m). In the still clear blue of early morning, before the mists begin their inevitable descent, i can see its ashen grey summit. I long to stand up there and gaze down at the volcanic lake on the other side. From its summit i would see the islands of Bali and Sumbawa across the straights to the west and east. But i think i would gain the most satisfaction from gazing down into this valley that i will have finally gained the strength to leave behind. For when i take the measure of myself - cramped stomach, aching head and tired limbs - i know i must remain here waiting. Although whether i am waiting to ascend or retreat is unclear. With every passing day it seems the latter will be the only feasible course.

The valley, were i in a state to appreciate it, is agriculturally rich and stunningly beautiful. Every day from dawn until morning classes and again in the late afternoon, hundreds of school children march up and down the road to the rhythm of piercing whistles. Indepence Day is looming. Although the people here must see some foreigners - this being the gateway to the Rinjani trek - i am the object of incessant amazement and amusement. A walk down the road will bring a thousand eyes to me and the relentless calls "hallo" "good moning" "what is you name". Any response by me the roadside erupts into fits of hysterical laughter. My lingering presence does not dampen their enthusiasm for this game though my own has long since expired.

The real torture i face comes from within. My days are a constant balancing of hope and dismay linked by disassociated boredom. Earlier in the week i senses my illness lift and strength return. My spirits soared until in the afternoon the debilatating fatigue, like the mists, rolled back into me. Now i am more cautious in my estimations and evaluations of the illness. But not a day goes by without my soul leaping at subtle signs of imminent health. "Just one more good long sleep" i tell myself. Then in the early morning darkness as i return from strange dreams to stranger reality i feel my weakness anew and despair.

Pak Diralam and his wife have been incredibly hospitable to me. They understand my need to rest and encourage me to eat three square meals a day. This i do without encouragement for their cooking is delicious, but i often wonder if i should be eating so much while my stomach is in pain. But i keep swallowing it my the handfull avoiding the spice if i can. The barriers of language and culture are generally surmounted, but in my darker moments i try to avoid communication for it can be very taxing. After visiting the local doctor yesterday morning without success, Pak Diralam decided it was time cure my illness with Lombok mysticism. I sat facing him, his head on my head, as he silently read the Sasak chants and clove scented smoke whirled around us from his untended cigarette. He later did the same to my water and we are to repeat the ritual twice a day until i am better. I think he is only a little less sceptical than me about the merits of this treatment, but both of us feel its worth a shot.

As time goes by an inner panick mounts, spurring life thoughts. I relive moments of signifance and obscurity. I recognise anew the importance of those closest to me and long to see them. In the starkness of the present i assume a greater understanding of the past. I see a pattern of decisions made with my heart, not my head, and the unimagined consequences i've often faced as a result. I recognise my love of risk and fear of the banal, but can no longer relate to it. The parallels of my predicament are all to clear, but i'm reluctant to draw conclusions yet.

In the late afternoon i walk a mile up the road, through a chorus of repetitious jokes disguised as greetings, to the only phone with a satalite. Three times i dial a series of different numbers and on the third i recognise the strange tone that indicates the line in ringing. The line is answered and i hear Nat's voice, faint but unmistakable. She can not hear me well and there is an awkawd time delay. She is sick too. I shout bite sized morsels of information into the receiver and she says "oh no!" over and over. I want us to move past her pity and concern, but the call's cost rises scarily higher every few seconds and i tell her i must go and i'll be in touch. It feels almost cruel to have called. Though when i get back to my room i feel a greater sense of calm and realise that i am happy. Just hearing her voice has been enough.

Friday 13 August:

Typing the date I realise it's Black Friday and hope for my traditional good luck.

I returned to Mataram last night with Asmuni from the RTC. He took me to a doctor who ran a bloodtest and determined i had no infection in my stomach (assumes he means bacterial - language always a barrier). He prescribed a range of stomach medication - mostly antacid tablets i think! I'll try these for the next few days and if no improvement will seek a second opinion.

My symptoms are not severe just prolonged. No need to worry out there. Love to all.

Friday, August 06, 2004

The Friendly Sultenate

I've been studying in Yogyakarta for the past two weeks. Last time i came to Indonesia i stayed for almost six weeks. It's a relaxed and friendly city that can prove very hard to leave.

I arrived on the train from Bandung with a nasty bout of gastro. I had too little strength to bargain for a becak and walked to the Kampung like Sosrwo to find somewhere nice to stay for a week. I eventually found that place and then collapsed for the next three days. But then i got better and remembered all the reasons why i stayed last time.

I've spent my days and nights studying, reading books and newspapers, writing, eating delicious cheap meals, wandering the street and markets and always, always chatting with the many strangers whose passion for conversation knows no bounds. My Indonesian has improved considerably here thanks to all the people i've talked to, but particularly my teachers. I'm confident of being able to do most things i need to do now.

Tomorrow i leave for Lombok and on Sunday start the four day trek to the summit of the giant Gunung Rinjani. But now i must rest.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

The Abode of the Gods

Catching local buses through the Central Javan countryside is an activity for which i have long had high regard. From the moment you step onto the step of the first bus you are hurtled with polite intensity towards your destination, no matter how off the track that my be. I say hurtled for two reasons. The more obvious is that buses rule the roads here. They are bigger and for some strange reason generally faster than other vehicles on the undulating rural roads. And buses, with their drivers steeped in a tradition of aggressive driving, take full advantage of their dominance which, it has to be said, makes for a more exciting and efficient journey. The second reason is something i had long suspected, but was only confirmed for me recently. In Central Java, with its high, dense population and freemarket transport industry, buses are incredibly frequent and regular and are always on the prowl for paying customers. Thus whenever you arrive at one bus station, maybe a little apprehensive of where you will find your next bus and how long you will have to wait, your bus has found you and hurtled off to your next destination before you have really had sufficient time to process your apprehension. Finally, because catching a bus in the Central Javan countryside is not on the average tourist itinery, the conductors don't even think to overcharge you. Thus you have the added benefit of travelling very far for very cheap - it doesn't get any better.

And so it was that i arrived in Dieng Village after a rapid succession of five buses from Yogyakarta. Until about half way through the third bus trip we moved steadily through an almost endless series of town, punctuated occassionally by waterlogged ricefields. Then as we began the steep climb up Kledung Pass to the town of Wonosobo, the landscape change dramatically. Kledung pass is the only road winding up between two towering volcanos - Sundoro (3151m) and Sumbling (3371m). As the engine strained ever upwards I enjoyed the view of fluffy cumulus gathered behinds their majestic summits. After we reached the pass and began our descent into the West i turned to gaze at them again but all i saw was swirling mist.

Wonosobo lies at 900m and already the temperature was almost agreeable. On the main road i flagged down a bemo and entered to for the entertainment of an amazed assesmbly. "Does this bus head to Dieng?" i asked. "Kami orang Dieng" (We are Dieng people) said a starry eyed man with pride and although he didn't answer my question i was reassured. The bemo stopped soon afterwards and we boarded a ramshackle bus for the final 21 kilometres up to the plateau and Dieng Village itself. The road twisted up ever higher and higher amongst the terraced hillsides. All along the sides of the roads whole extended families of farmers tapped out tried mats of tobacco and hoed the earth for potatoes filling giant baskets as they went. The air outside grew almost chilly and i relished the feeling as it cooled the sweat on my legs. The bus quickly became crowded as we stopped to pick up anyone heading up the mountain on the only road. Most people were returning to their homes after morning excursions to valley markets and were laden with produce. I asked a young couple without a load why they had gone to town and they told me they'd been visiting a sick friend in hospital. Everyone, it seemed, was moving up with road with clear purpose and intent - except me not even aware of my own reasons for being there. As the bus climbed ever upwards we began to get spectacular views of the valleys far below. Amongst the green terraced fields i could see the faded brown of the roofs of scattered hamlets and the gold and silver glints of mosque bells reflecting the sun. The terraces rose up to meet us and then climbed further still to unfathomable heights just shy of volcanic summits. Then the road dipped and after a few turns the land opened up again to reveal a plateau and the small village of Dieng.

At over 2000 metres above sea level, the Dieng plateau is thought to have been a flourishing temple city of Hindu priests in the 8th and 9th centuries. Centuries later Islam became firmly entrenched as the religion of the Javanese sultans and the plateau today has more mosques than temples. The name 'Dieng' comes from Di Hyong meaning 'Abode of the Gods'. The temples that remain are thought to be the oldest in Java and are scattered around the volcanicaly active plateau amongst mineral lakes and steaming sulphur vents.

After checking into my Losmen (the aptly named 'Bu Jono') I set out to visit the mineral lakes to the south of the village. Along the way i make a short detour to Tuk Bima Lukur - confirmed by a few wandering boys as a fountain of eternal youth. Down at the ancient spring (long since concreted) a young woman washes bare breasted, her mouth foaming with toothpaste. She mouths a few words but i cannot hear her over the rythmic hum of a high powered electric pump. It's an eclectic mix of the crass and the serene, something i'm becoming increasinly used to. I reach the lakes which are serenely blue and surrounded by yet higher hills. On the narrow isthmus between the lakes is a holy meditation cave. But when i look inside it looks more like a damp space between fallen rocks behind a metal grill and throngs of Indonesian tourists (it is Saturday). So i head off along a small dirt track hoping to circumnavigate the two lakes. After passing fisherman at the further end of the first lake i find no trace of a path continuing around the waters. Reluctant to backtrack i take a trail leading up into the terraced fields above. Up above the lakes i find farmers tended fields in a vast cropgrowing area while hardy folk saunter through the network of trails with heavy loads. The landscape is pure agrarian beauty and i don't mind if i eventually have to retreat all the way back along the trail to the cave. But eventually the trail snakes back out to the second lake and i'm able to skirt back around to the circuit head and back to my losmen.

As the sun sets the air becomes decidedly chilly. So tied to the sticky heat is my perception of this country, that i no longer recognise the village as Indonesia. On the street the townpeople wrap garments around their heads and huddle under blankets compounding my confusion. It is as though i've been unintentionally transported at an Andean village in Bolivia or Peru. After a dinner of fried rice i order a banana pancake and it comes out Quran thick and still mushy on the inside. I eat past the point of enjoyment and have to shuffle around the deserted streets beneath a glowing full moon to settle my beseiged tummy before sleep.

At 4am the next morning, still full of sticky dough and mashed banana, i was striding down the road in search of a mountain whose summit promised dramatic views of the sunrising in the East. As i swept along in the darkness the mosques of the plateau began to erupt with phonetically enhanced chanting. I passed a small village and was directed up a steep road by an old man fetching his morning water from the stream. But at its pitiful summit i found only a descent to fields below from which the sounds of tools scraping the earth could be heard in the darkness. So i ran back down the hill and back along the road until almost two hours after setting off i came across another village that i initially mistook for the first.

Passing through the village streets that early morning i felt i had stepped back into a different age. The town .... I was later to learn is not only the highest in Java, but, thanks to the potatoes they grow, quite wealthy and sends a sizable number of pilgrims to Mecca each Haj. The townpeople directed me to a trail skirting a lake and passing into hills beyond. Despite my suspicions every person i asked told me that if i continued on the trail for about an hour i would reach Dieng again - I had since given up on the mountain and the sun was already casting faint light on the hills.

So i took the trail through a pass and from there saw the trail plunging ever downwards into the valley below. On closer inspection i recognised a road as the one from Wonosobo and decided to walk down to it and catch a bus back to town. Just as i set off down the into the valley i heard my name called from high above. I looked up to see my Losmen owner shepharding a group of people down from the mountain that i had been too cheap to be guided up. It was a salutory lesson. The sun had clearly rised by now, but I climbed to the top of the mountain anyway. The views were spectacular and i vowed to be at the top of my next mountain for sunrise.

Friday, July 23, 2004

The Asia Afrika Conference of 1955

With my packs strapped to my shoulders i caught an ojek to Stasiun Gambir - Jakarta's main train station - and boarded the express train for Bandung.  When the train finally emerged from beyond the Jakarta city limits, i found myself moving through flat fields of rice.  But the north western plains were coming to an end and soon the land outside grew increasingly rugged.  A few hours from Jakarta I looked outside to see a landscape of high ridges and deep ravines.  Up ahead i saw the rail tracks stretching out over the ravines with all the apparent delicateness of a single strand of spiderweb.  All around the land glowed light green save for the brown of turbulent waters deep in the ravines.
We pulled into Bandung station at about 2pm and i found myself a room in a dilapidated Dutch  lodge complete with faded moulin rouge prints and colonial furniture.  It was called the Hotel Surabaya.  My mouldy room reeked of stale tobacco, but i'd seen rooms closer to the station that were a lot worse so i took it anyway.  I fell asleep for the rest of the afternoon and just before dark left to explore the city.  With no functioning street lamps, no footpaths and furious traffic Bandung is quite menacing at night.  My goal was to find a small restaurant on the other side of town that served cheap traditional Sundanese food.  After about an hour of wandering and copious amounts of direction asking, I'm proud to say i found it.  My hosts were kind but i left feeling ill and returned in a daze to the Surabaya where all night people loitered in its cavernous room and halls while i slept warily.