From 1959 to 1964, I lived with my family in Djakarta (Jakarta), Indonesia, in a white house with a red tile roof, and a flame tree in the front yard. I was there from the time I was five, until we were evacuated back to the US during a serious rebellion, at the age of ten. The film, The Year of Living Dangerously, 1982 (Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver, and Linda Hunt), was made about the unrest that led to our leaving Indonesia. We had a machine gun nest and soldiers in our front yard guarding us then. But I digress…
On weekends, to escape the heat and the city, dad had the use of a cottage, through the US Embassy where he worked as an FSO (Foreign Service Officer). No one else used it except our family. It was up in the Javanese hills, about a two hour drive from Djakarta, in an area called Tugu, past Bogor, and before Bandung. Bogor was where then President Sukarno’s summer palace was located, in the center of town, a low white building in back of a large lawn, complete with a herd of grazing spotted deer. We would pass through, usually in the evening, the sky dark with fruit bats, leaving the eaves of the two story, tin-roofed buildings around us, getting reading to feed during the night.
After leaving the city and towns behind and traveling ever higher into the cooler hills on asphalt roads, we would turn right onto a gravel road, and travel about a mile to the cottage. My dad had a sea-foam green 1958 Ford Fairlane four door sedan. It was big enough in the back seat for us three kids easily. Sometimes we would climb into the deck space behind the rear seat, under the rear window. There was rarely any traffic once we left Djakarta.
The cottage was covered with white clapboard siding, with red trim around the doors and yellow trim round the windows. There was one gravity-fed toilet, with the tank high up on the wall. No electricity, we had a stone fireplace for warmth and light, bottled gas for cooking, and kerosene lamps too. There was a living and dining area, with two bedrooms on opposite sides of the living area, roughly 800 square feet total. The cottage was on level in front with the gravel and dirt driveway. To the right of the cottage, and extending behind it, was a lawn with some large pine trees, very shady. Moss grew in the shade. My brother Bill and I would construct tiny frames out of twigs there to build miniature villages, and wall our little buildings with the moss.
Out the back of the cottage, a few wooden stairs led down to a stone walkway, across the short backyard, and down two terraces. Each terrace was planted with hibiscus and other tropical trees and bushes. We would sometimes see flying lizards gliding there, and snakes too. On the bottom terrace was a small swimming pool, perhaps 15 by 30 feet, fed by the mountain streams. The water was untreated and always pretty brisk, and we would sometimes find large bullfrogs that had fallen in. I learned to swim in that pool. It was quite dark, formed of unpainted concrete, and covered with deep green algae. There was a shallow end, a wall, and then the deep end.
Dad was always pragmatic about teaching us how to swim. His method consisted of holding our legs in the shallow end of the pool, and it was literally ‘sink or swim’. I remember picking up the skill quickly. We also had pool floats. My favorites were the ‘sea lion’ swim rings that we would have around our torsos, with an inflated head of a sea lion protruding upwards. We also had ‘Lilo’ brand rafts.
As boys living in the country, we would battle with the other kids who were also up for the weekends, more bark than bite – gave us all something to do. We lived next to a cottage used by the Egyptian Ambassador, and used to “fight” his kid, Faisal. We would all make bows and arrows and bamboo spears, and once I created a morning star, out of bamboo and vines.
No one was ever seriously injured. However, during one of our battles outside, someone pushed Faisal over and his front teeth sunk into the top of my head. The pain for him was so great that he ran straight through a glass door, shattering it as I watched, and was miraculously unhurt. I still have the scar from his teeth.
It was usually my younger brother Bill and I who went exploring, and we knew the area very well, to a distance of several miles from the cottage. It was rural and hilly, with farmers growing mostly rice, and some tea and corn. There were dirt roads, and rice-paddy trails, no trucks or cars, and very limited electricity.
In the small farming village we often passed through on our explorations, consisting of several small homes constructed entirely from bamboo, set on a raised area of earth and surrounded by rice paddies, there was one communal light-bulb – just one, at night. One time Bill ran right up to a resting Kurabao, or water buffalo, to pet it, and the animal didn’t seem to mind. Kurabao were used to plow the rice fields, and for meat and milk.
We used to make our way across the rice paddies to a mountain stream and go wading in it, looking for deep cool pools of water. The water was clean, coming down from the hills.
One day I decided we would find our own island, and claim it. I found some paint and a piece of cloth the size of a pillow case. I painted, “Republic of Nederlich” (??? …my six year old imagination) in green letters on it, with a yellow star at each corner. I tied it to a bamboo pole, and marched off with Bill towards the stream a couple of miles away. When we got there, we began wading downstream, with the flag. We did find an island, about 10 feet wide, and 20 feet long. We couldn’t actually walk on it, as it was solid bamboo, though we did manage to sink the flagpole into it, and claimed it as our own.
One of our favorite activities was to rent and ride the mountain ponies. There were a few for rent, less than a quarter mile from the cottage. Though we were little kids, Bill and I were pretty good riders, and the fellows renting the ponies let us go without a guide after a while. What a thrill that was! We would be gone for hours, racing along trails, and by the tea fields, immersed in the ‘flying carpet’ feeling of the ponies galloping beneath us.
The only trouble we had was one time when we rented a couple of ponies, and the guides told us not to let one of the ponies get in front of the other. After riding awhile, Bill and I forgot, and let just that happen. Soon, his pony was climbing onto the back of mine, and I slid off the neck to get away.
We were always discovering new wildlife, from the blue and purple shelled fresh water crabs found in the streams, exotic butterflies, large bright green lizards, and even poisonous caterpillars. Bill and I would build rock pens about a foot across, and face off the crabs. We called the larger blue ones, ‘Hercules’ crabs, and smaller purple ones, the ‘Spartacus’ crabs. ‘Hercules’ usually won.
When we weren’t running around outside, or sliding down the rock ramps on either side of the terrace stairways, and wearing holes in our shorts, we did a lot of reading. Sometimes in the evening, the family or my brothers and I would play a board game by the fire and kerosene lamps. Compared to the world as it is today, there were no distractions and we tuned to the light of the day, and the dark of night. Without electricity, the rhythms of the world became apparent.