In 1959 when I was five years old, we moved from Spain to Djakarta (now Jakarta), Indonesia, as a continuation of my father’s career as a Foreign Service Officer in the US Diplomatic Corps, US Department of State.
The picture accompanying this post is a painting of a puja ceremony held on Bali. This painting always hung in our dining room wherever we were. Like a window into my future, I later participated in the puja ceremony that initiated me into Transcendental Meditation at 21, in 1975. Small world. 🙂
A few years ago, just to keep it all straight, I wrote my autobiography. Here is an excerpt from that time in Indonesia. Please enjoy:
“…The street to the school was lined with open sewers on both sides. Occasionally, while we were walking to school, we would relieve ourselves in one. There were also some very aggressive geese on that street, that would emerge honking, nipping and chasing us. Being small, six or so at the time, they were about as tall as we were. As we got older we learned to throw dirt clods at them to back them off.
Also down the street lived some very good friends of my parents, the H******s, Henry and Renatta. They had no children, but they did have a gibbon. Gibbons are apes, and quite large and powerful. They would chain the gibbon to the swing-set outside, and we would try to get as close as we could to it, then run like crazy to get out of reach, before the chain stopped the ape.
I also had a friend on that same street who collected snakes. He had twenty or thirty, and would take them out of their cages and play with them when I went over to see him. Then one day I heard that he had been bitten by one of the snakes, and bled to death. Just like that – none of the snakes were supposed to be poisonous, so I never did figure out what had happened, except that he was possibly a hemophiliac.
Our house was large enough for us all to be comfortable. A single story, with high ceilings. There was a porch, later screened in, where I would read, and drink endless glasses of Tang (just like the astronauts…). I also liked saltine crackers, which in those days came in a painted metal tin, instead of a cardboard box, with the crackers wrapped in wax paper. Given the tropical humidity, the crackers would not stay crunchy for long.
The porch was the entry to the house, leading into the living room, with rattan furniture and a bare floor covered with woven rugs. Wall to wall carpeting was impractical and too warm for the climate in Djakarta (Jakarta).
There was an adjoining dining area, and a hallway leading to the bathroom, and bedrooms. For the first few years, we had electricity just a few hours a day, leaving us to navigate by kerosene lamps in the evening. After two or three years, the embassy (we were always in embassy housing when stationed overseas) installed both a back-up generator, and air conditioners in the bedrooms – they were a godsend!
We always had geckos living on the ceilings, near the screened vents above the windows, to eat any insects, especially mosquitoes. I would look up at them before going to sleep but they never bothered us. Mosquitoes in the tropics are always a problem. I recall getting so many bites, over 50, that then became infected, I was on bed rest for a few days. We had the infamous chemical DDT sprayed into all the bedrooms every evening before bed, to kill any mosquitoes. So far, so good. 🙂
Our bathroom had the traditional Indonesian bathing facilities, a large basin to draw water, and an area to stand over a floor drain and pour buckets of water over oneself, just cold water. As kids we were small enough so that we could also climb in the basin, and I am glad it was well secured! It got us clean, but there weren’t any long lingering baths.
There was also a servants’ quarters near the kitchen. We had a number of servants in Indonesia, a gardener/driver, a cook, an amah, or nanny, for us kids, and someone to clean the house. They were just part of the household and I loved many of them. I recall Semun (pronounced ‘sea-moon’), our cook, very well – I used to hang out and talk with him, a bright and friendly man.
We obviously could not afford and did not need servants when we lived in the US. However in Djakarta, to shop and cook and maintain the house, and take care of three young boys, while my parents worked and entertained frequently, took more than my parents could handle. Especially when we had electrical outages, shopping in the market every day, and water that had to be boiled before drinking.
No fresh dairy products were available, and the bread from the market always had a lot of iron filings in it. My mom would sometimes shop at the US commissary (for government employees), and I remember the very rare wonders of Velveeta cheese, powdered ice cream, and one year, an imported very small, shriveled apple for each of us kids at Christmas. I had not had an apple before, being much more accustomed to papaya and rambutan then. I was impressed more with the novelty of an apple in Indonesia vs. its flavor.
In Djakarta, we would regularly have beggars come to our gate. My mom frequently gave them money. We also had a dog for awhile, a cocker spaniel named Darby, that unfortunately was kidnapped for ransom several times. The third time, my parents decided not to pay, and our dog disappeared, probably eaten. A much different way of living than in the US. More fluid and unpredictable.
For media, there was no television. We had a phonograph player, monophonic vs. stereo, in a large wooden cabinet, with a radio receiver below the turntable. We could sometimes pick up shortwave broadcasts. We listened to mostly classical music, and Gilbert and Sullivan musicals (The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance). Also the ‘Trooping of the Colors’, a Scottish military album with the sound of bagpipes. I always enjoyed that one. For our birthday parties, my folks would rent a projector and a film from the USIA (now USIS) library.
We used to get our hands on comic books rarely, though I don’t remember going out and buying them. I do recall going to the open market for any dental work, climbing into the chair under a shade from the sun, and the dentist would start pumping his foot-powered drill. I didn’t have many cavities until we moved back to the States for a few years, and I discovered candy…”