I can’t do it. I can’t bottle the silvery web that enlaces the rice padis at dawn. I can’t retell the claustrophobia of being stuck in a five-seater van with fifteen other people and a busker holding us prisoner with his out-of-tune ukulele. I can’t explain how I feel belonging in a place I’ve never been to. I can’t explain how welcomed I feel among people I’ve not seen for the majority of my life. It’s too personal. It’s too close to home. And I can’t explain the gravity of being able to change and adapt so easily to a situation, to be able to change my behaviour in ways I didn’t think I could. I can’t explain the things I’ve seen. More importantly, I can’t explain to you who I am.
I recently made the nine or so hours flight back to Indonesia, for the first time since I was three years old. Mum, a logical and rational woman, mentally prepared me, (or under-prepared me rather) by feeding me horror stories. Then, seeing tears flood to my nineteen year old eyes, she justified all the stories with;
But you’ll be with your family, they’ll protect you… you’ll never be rid of them, you’ll see, you’ll have about six of them hovering around you like your personal body guard and you’ll never get moment’s peace. Back when I was there and they didn’t have mobile phones, you know, and I got off a bis malam from somewhere and there would just be your father’s cousins waiting at the bus stop, like just waiting there, bus after bus, until you stepped off. They just know. They’ll love you, you’ll see.
For all her reassurance, all I could think about were her horror stories, of being left in a bus station just because she needed to pee and they didn’t take a head count. Or what if I ate some meat and got a squirty botty for three weeks and couldn’t see my family at all? Or what if there was a language barrier? I had studied Bahasa Indonesia for my HSC but that was nearly two years before, I could barely remember how to ask where the bathroom was. I was in a total daze.
When I got off the plane at Soekarno-Hatta airport in Jakarta, the first thing that hit me was the smell. To any normal person, that would be a cigarette, just an Indonesian brand of cigar. Not to me. To me, that scent was home. The heavy haze that clouded the departure gate with such a sickening weight was everything I’d been searching for. Back in Sydney, I’d walk the streets of Chinatown and just get hit with a wall of Indonesian rokok, when to anyone else, it would just wash over them and waft on by. To me, it’s a subtle blend of cloves and sweet spices and aniseed and all things warm and it’s enough to turn me into a chain smoker. Because the thing is, the smell that hit me as I got off the plane is the same smell that hits me in Chinatown, and was the same smell that invaded my weak three year old defences on my last trip to Indonesia. Yet it’s just a cigarette, it’s nothing special. Ah, but apparently it is. Later in my trip, incidentally, we passed the Garum factory and it turns out the recipe for the tobacco and spice mix is so heavily guarded that only Indonesia’s topmost Grand Master of the national martial arts, Pencak Silat, stands at the door of the factory floor and no-one can enter, death to those who steal a peek. Or so they say.
I thought I didn’t have too many distinct memories from my first trip to Jakarta. I kept justifying that with- I was only three, how am I supposed to remember everything? What am I supposed to know?
This is what I know. I remembered everything.
I walked into Bude Ni’s house nearly sixteen years after the first time, remembering a child’s version. Every Indonesian house has a sitting-area, with chairs around the outer walls of the room, then the house branches off into domestic quarters. I walked through the front gates and I knew, somehow, exactly where to go, exactly what to do. I took off my shoes and I turned left through the open doors, into the welcoming arms of Pakde Nario and Bude Ni. I shook hands, right hand to right hand, then we embraced, a tight, life-giving embrace. I walked into the guest sitting area and was shocked at just how small the room was.
As everyone sat, I kept walking, veering right into the kitchen, where I had once peeked to see a live fish being swished out onto the floor then, konk! thwokked on the head for dinner. The stairs to the left were stairs I was never allowed to go up, I could never follow Dad there, because of secret uncles’ business or something. There was obviously something amazing that little girls should not trespass to see. The one time I did trespass, I discovered the horrendous anticlimax of my Dad just sitting with his brothers eating peanuts. Sixteen years later, I’ve learnt my lesson to listen to my parents, so turning back around, I walked straight ahead into the room where Mum and I had slept under holey mosquito nets. Bude Ni followed me there and opened the door to two ready-made beds, the faded-lime paint on the walls peeling a little and said Rukmini ingat, ya? Waktu kecil, ibu dan kamu bertidur di sini. And what she said is true. I did remember that I slept there with mum. I can’t explain these memories I thought I didn’t have.
There are other things I can’t explain. Growing up, my Dad told stories from the village. Apparently, my grandfather was the village wise-man and according to Dad, the most respected man in all of Kediri. He could scale houses in a single leap because he was the best ninja around. He told me stories of weird occurrences, like servant girls being chained to bamboo trees in the dry season, then my grandfather’s dreams about this girl being led by a spirit up the mountain to a swamp and, in the morning, this servant girl had muddy feet but no footprints. Because my ever logical and rational mother nodded wisely, I tended to believe them too, even if a little sceptically.
However, one afternoon as I was sitting idly in the sweltering heat, sweating over a steaming lemon tea, my uncle Om Pur, trotted into the front yard.
Seeing me there, he stopped, closed his eyes and pointed at me. His index finger scanned my body from afar. He then resumed walking over to me with a gigantic grin on his face.
Hallo Rukmini! How are you? Your back, it is pain. Your neck. Your shoulders, they are hurt. They slant and you fall to one side. Your left. But this is only problem if you become a supermodel He chuckled. You can’t breathe sometime. Your…right ankle. It is not healthy.
In that one moment, this man I have no memory of, named my scoliosis, unhealed ligament damage and asthma.
I can’t explain why the Catholic Churches have banners across their arches, wishing the local Islamic community a blessed Ramadan. I can’t explain how I managed to sleep through every 5am call to prayer from the mosque’s incessant broadcasting. I can’t explain how my stomach wasn’t heebie-jeebie central for three weeks and I can’t explain how I crunched through a whole deep-fried fish, bone and all and a green chilli. I cannot explain these things.
On the fifth day of our trip, Dad and I travelled to Kediri, his home village in East Java. I thought, well I’m in Jakarta and Jakarta’s in Java, (albeit West Java,) so we’ll just hop on a bus and everything would be smooth as butter. As it happens, the bus trip to Kediri took nineteen hours. Thinking it was just a bus ride, I didn’t heed my mum’s advice and wear DVT socks, so I stepped off at the neighbouring village of Pasar Gringging with fat calves and no ankles. For fear of permanently becoming elephant-woman, I slept the next few nights with all five-pairs of packed socks worn at once and both feet elevated against the wall at the end of my bed.
We stayed with Tante Tuti out the back of her shop in Pasar Gringging, with her son Tito and daughter Ivo. In the evening of our arrival there, we attended a cultural event at St Vincentious A Paulo, Kediri’s local Catholic Church where a multicultural extravaganza was being held. Bude Sri ferried me by the forearm, like a tugboat to a cruise liner, to every relative I didn’t know I had. Tito introduced me to his girlfriend and Ivo kept creeping over to me, trying to catch me in the corner of her selfies. Then Dad was taking photos, stay still, lagi lagi, again! Again! Just one more! In front of the church! With the pastor! Bude get in the photo! Don’t move! It’s blurry, again again!
We were in the dry season but the rain poured down, leaving us ankle deep in puddles and there was a bash and clash and crash of cymbals as part of the Chinese Lion dance outside this Indonesian Church and then Dad said his Dad, my grandfather, was an important part of building the church and then Dad confessed that he himself was baptised there and when we walked into the church, traditional Javanese gamelan was playing.
This was the music my Dad played when he used to hide away downstairs painting his landscapes. Listening, I closed my eyes and smelt old oil paints. This was the music that reverberates through my pillow because my bed is directly above his hidey-hole. This was the music I used to watch him play with his friends at the Australian Indonesian Association and this was the music that had no one tune, but many instruments becoming one. So I cried and cried and cried and sobbed. I sobbed dramatically and loud and I slurped and jerked. And I apologised for humiliating my family, but the overwhelming stress of everything since I’d booked the flights crashed in a great kaleidoscope of gems and instead of making a wonderful kaleidoscopic image, I found myself slipping on the glass beads. Then Bude Sri was all talk to the pastor, she’s just from Australia, she’s missing her mummy and Tito was just confused because he’d just introduced me to Mei, his girlfriend and I think she took the leakage of my eyes personally, and Ivo was handing me sweets and aunties I was yet to be introduced to rubbed my back, then finally Tante Tuti wrapped her maternal arm around my shoulders and handed me a packet of tissues.
She asked no questions, which was good, because I had no answers.
The day after, they decided it was time I met the rest of my family. I knew that a lot of my extended family, grandparents included, had passed away, so I deciphered this message to mean that we were visiting the cemetery. In Indonesia, going there isn’t a chore or an event, it’s just visiting family. Beforehand, we bought bags of fresh flowers, full of fragrance and bottles of oil in ceremonious respect for the dead. Tito drove the six of us in their 1987 Honda. He and Dad sat with plenty of leg-room in the front, while Tante Tuti, Ivo, Bude Sri and I were squashed into the back. The manual clutch needed re-clunking a fair few times on the way to Bandung and when it poured with rain on the way back, Dad needed to hop out to get the windscreen wipers going again.
We visited my extended family. We showered them with white, magenta and cream blooms. We sprinkled oil over their graves. The cemeteries themselves were small because there were so many of them scattered along the countryside. They didn’t feel at all eerie or haunted. In fact, they felt in sync with the rest of society, in step with contemporary lives, like they’ll never be forgotten, they’re always there.
The cemetery visit had helped me to come to terms with being grandparentless on my Indonesian side. After, we visited the home of another relative; an old hunched lady, skinny of muscle, but strong in handshake with a great silver ponytail twisted into a bun. She welcomed us and bade us take rest. She sat next to me, held my hand and wiped her eyes of the tears that flowed and she never said a word, only murmured approval here and there. Her daughter came out to greet us and I later learnt that this lady was my grandmother’s sister. By the Indonesian technicalities in their familial respect system, she was, My Grandmother.
There was a strange serenity that overcame me after that. Nothing else in Indonesia could phase me. I had found something. Some people call it peace, some call it tranquillity. Buddhists call it a step on the path to Nirvana. I was calm.
Later in the trip, Dad and I booked a bis malam from a dodgy vendor in Terminal Jombor, Yogyakarta, for our journey back to Jakarta. Maju Lancar was the company for this night bus and we instructed the man of our three conditions; leg room, an on board toilet and dinner overnight. After paying for class Eksekutif, we had ticked two of the three boxes until we stopped at a terminal around 9pm. Expecting dinner, Dad and I had eaten our munchies on the bus already, but the cafeteria clerk would not accept our bus ticket, on the basis that is was not business class. We had been jipped back in Yogya and halfway between there and Jakarta, there was nothing we could do about it. There was no time to eat a full meal; the bus had only stopped to let people use the squatty toilets. Dad’s eyes widened. He paced. He called his brothers. They tried to console him. He crossed him arms and stamped his foot and sniffed and got very, very agitated. I could see the panic in his eyes and I knew the problem was deeper than being ripped off by some skanky terminal cheat.
I sat him on the bus, ran to buy some kerupuk to snack on, perhaps more packets than were necessary and held his hand when the bus started going again. The baby diagonally opposite us vomited nine times in fourteen hours. Dad couldn’t make a coherent sentence. Around 2am, we both awoke, opened our kerupuk and he settled, a little bit. One of the munchies I had bought was apparently the same kind of snack he used to make by hand with his mother when he was a kid. He nodded and twitched a smile, then explained that I was under his protection and he was very disappointed that I had seen a bad side of Indonesia, that this ‘ruined everything’, that he had failed me. I was calm, I told him I wasn’t panicked, I didn’t mind and that perhaps “something we couldn’t see” was protecting us from the food at that bus terminal, maybe we were supposed to avoid the food.
Later, I was proclaimed not a three year old anymore and very mature and finally, with my calm mentality, I was declared by my family: an Indonesian, through and through.
I do know who I am. I may not be able to explain it, I may not be able to articulate it, but I just know. I am Rukmini, which means “Girl with the Golden Heart”. To my younger cousins, I am Mbak and they look up to me as a big sister. I have a grandmother. I have a family who loves me. I can speak Bahasa Indonesia, with some Javanese twangs. I am Australian-Indonesian and I can eat a chilli. My blood pulses in the farthest regions of provincial Java and I have a home.
Glossary of Terms
||A field for growing rice
||A crisp-like snack
|“Ini jambu panas sedikit.”
||This guava is a little bit hot.
|“Rukmini ingat, ya? Waktu kecil, ibu dan kamu bertidur di sini.”
||Do you remember, Regina? When you were little, you and your mum slept here.