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Conversations on an Indonesian Train

21 May 2015
By Palmos
Image Credit: Flickr (killerturnip) Creative Commons.

Dr Francis Palmos recounts his travels in East Java and conversations held with local people, most of whom were largely uninterested in the topic of the Bali executions and capital punishment.

Back in 1961 I learned my Indonesian from student friends and by listening to the Imams in small mosques in Kampung Bali, an inner suburb of old Djakarta as it was known then, and another mosque just south of Bandung, where I shared a room with two brothers in a small house on a laneway called a Gang. My Siswa Lokantara Fellowship provided an allowance of around US$5 a month.

I travelled widely, on very slow moving buses with unbending wooden seats and even slower trains that stopped for no apparent reason between stations, giving me time to learn even more colloquial Bahasa and answer questions about my family, my house, my school and did I know the Australian lady named Nyonya ‘Smit’ who had fair hair and lived in Adelaide, and of course I said that I did. Everyone in Tasik Malaya knew her because she was an Australian nurse who was very nice and friendly. I was Australian therefore I must know her. By 1992 I had logged around 200 days of conversation on cheap public transport.

A few weeks ago in East Java, I logged another few hours. Déjà vu. The seats were a little softer, but not much better than 1961‐62, as my wife and I rode the train from the beautiful town of Malang in East Java back to Surabaya, where I had chosen to stay again at the historic Majahpahit Hotel, to introduce Alison to a little history and show her the spot where the first fatality of the 1945‐1950 Revolution occurred. Train and bus riding is the dream situation for young foreigners trying to improve their Indonesian and for me it was just like old times. I tried to gently open an inquiry into the Capital Punishment story that was on the cities’ front pages, but they wanted to tell me of a split in a football competition in Surabaya, which worried them. Ladies who had been strangers when they sat down opposite me enjoined me into a chat about baby health, the weather, my family, how lovely my wife was (sitting alongside me but not understanding the conversation) and did we have children and was schooling expensive as it was here in East Java.

Another man, a stranger also to them, joined in, showed off a little by saying he had a good friend in Australia. The friend was a Mister Will‐ison (Wilson) who lived in Melbourne and was very friendly and laughed a lot and did a good job for them. I must know him. He looked a bit like me and had black hair and he was helpful but my Indonesian was better than his, but he tried hard. I said of course I knew him and agreed that Mr Willison had black hair, looked a bit like me and was friendly and I promised the man I would say hello from Benny in Bangli town, for him. “He’ll remember me. He was very nice,” said Benny and the others nodded approval.

We heard more about the Lapindo hot mud environmental disaster in Sidoarjo, which had entombed several entire villages, that these days even diesel and kerosene fuel was more expensive under this new government and the unusual fact that not one of my audience had ever been on an aeroplane flight. One mother said she went shopping as a pillion passenger, paying a young motorcyclist to take her every market day for R3,000 (40 cents) because the traffic made walking difficult for her. One boy asked me how Real Madrid would go this year, which astonished me. I bought a railway magazine that said a new train would be on the Jakarta‐Surabaya line and run at 200 kmh and China would be paying for a new rail somewhere. But it didn’t say when this fabulous train would be running. Meanwhile, we chugged along at a safe 50 kmh, stopping every now and then to wait for another down train to pass us. A taxi from Gubeng Station Surabaya CBD to the Majahpahit cost 50 cents, on the Bluebird meter and I learned more about the football club split in Surabaya from the Madurese driver.

In my scores of conversations in East Java and later Jakarta, as I was leaving, just one person commented on the hot news of Capital Punishment and the executions the next day. It came from my oldest friend from my 1961 Bandung university days: he was rather blunt, saying that the two persons to be shot were “not really Australians” being Chinese and Indian, but in any case most people wanted all drug carriers shot, Indonesians especially. The newspapers carried massive amounts of front page copy on the case, describing how fourteen riflemen would be used, sketches and photographs of the massive parade of officials involved and the TV droned on and on, but showing only city scenes. Away from town, the issue was not on the daily conversation agenda. The rare political comment was a put down or comment of disappointment on the new President, but it was the price of schooling (a really hot topic), fuel, food, building or buying a house, family health, too many traffic jams and among the boys, local and European League soccer.

Dr Francis Palmos, historian, established the first foreign newspaper bureau in the new Republic of Indonesia in 1964. His first interest in early Republican history was when acting as a translator for the Colombo Plan in Surabaya in 1961, but turned his interests into his full time occupation in 2008 at the University of Western Australia. His book Surabaya 1945: Sacred Territory is a comprehensive story using Indonesian language documents of the first days of the Republic. The original manuscript was formally presented to the East Java government in 2011 and documented as a Cultural and Archival Treasure and in 2012, Frank was awarded the symbolic Keys to the City for his work.

© 2015 Francis Palmos All Rights Reserved