I’m in Jakarta.
And believe me, I’m as surprised as you are.
I made a snap decision 3 weeks ago that I was ready to go back to Indonesia. And in keeping with my “there’s no time like the present” philosophy, here I am.
I’ve touched on the fact Andrew and I were married here and our experience, a year later, when we had returned to celebrate our first year anniversary and witnessed first-hand the catastrophic effects of the 2002 Bali Bombings.
Look, this is one of those posts I’ve thought so long and hard about publishing. It’s certainly not something that is in the light-hearted crafty vein of normal twirling betty posts. But our experience, and the background to it, fundamentally shapes who I am today I do want to share it. So if you like your twirling betty posts cheery and choc full of pretty pictures, then look away now. Normal programming will recommence shortly.
If, though, you are willing to read an extremely long and weighty post, and would like an insight into who Christen is, then read on.
Still here? Love ya.
In the early nineties, I began a double undergraduate degree in Law and Asian Studies. From the get go, I loathed law and adored my Asian Studies degree.
At the end of my first year of studying Indonesian, my best girl and I took a trip from Jakarta, down through the whole island of Java to Bali. Despite numerous unwanted amorous advances, long train trips with open durian, near misses in the chaotic traffic and our laughably bad language skills, we fell deeply and irrevocably in love with the country and its people.
Even Jakarta. This huge city that the majority of foreign tourists describe as noisy, chaotic, filthy, polluted and difficult captured my imagination like no other place ever had.
Two years later I returned to Jakarta to work as an intern for a few weeks at a law firm in Jakarta. As we flew in over the city’s harbour and the surrounding countryside, I felt, inexplicably, as though I were coming home.
That feeling never left me. From the very first moment I grabbed a taxi at the airport and made my way through the madness of peak hour to where I was staying, until my last glimpse of the hazy fog that coats the city like an ethereal blanket, I was utterly smitten.
Jakarta is crazy and chaotic and filthy and run-down and raw and confronting and, um, fragrant in places. I’ve still never been anywhere quite so uncontrived, vivid and alive in my life
At the end of three years of Indonesian study I had sufficiently high marks to do honours in Indonesian and I leapt at the chance to dump law for a year and focus solely on my passion. A year of academic bliss followed. Surrounded by like-minded Indophiles and ensconced in what was, at the time, one of the world’s leading centres for South East Asian studies I happily whiled away my year writing a thesis devoted to the country I loved.
At the end of my honours year I was, if not fluent, very competent in Indonesian and as deeply entranced with this country of light and shade, bloody history and thousand of years of exquisitely refined culture as ever before.
There were a number of trips to Bali.
Prior to studying Indonesian, if I had won tickets to holiday in Bali I would have given them away. I was convinced it was nothing more than a ruined former paradise overrun with the worst kind of Australian tourist. And there are indeed parts that are overrun with drunken and boorish tourists but, thankfully, those spots are easy to avoid. The moment I arrived I regretted my earlier prejudices and fell as deeply in love with Bali as I had with the rest of Indonesia.
A few years on again and when Andrew proposed to me, he was not at all surprised when I told him I couldn’t imagine being married anywhere other than Bali.
We were married in October 2001 in Ubud in the hills of central Bali. It was a rainy day and our hotel, perched on the edge of a ravine above a river, was surrounded by terrraced rice paddies and jungle. In the distance, the mountain peaks were wreathed in mist.
In a simple ceremony on the stone terrace by the spectacular pool, we said our vows in front of about 30 friends and family. .
It was simple and perfect and exceeded every expectation.
A year later we returned to celebrate our first year of marriage.
Arriving late in the afternoon our first stop, after checking in, was dinner at our favourite restaurant in Seminyak. We were delighted when the waiter we had befriended the previous year not only remembered us but greeted us like long-lost friends.
After a gorgeous dinner and full to bursting with not only delicious food but the knowledge we were back in the place we loved so much, we wandered back to our hotel.
Our waiter friend hailed us from the back of an approaching moped. Slowing down he reached out both hands to us as he came to a stop. He’d just knocked off work. ‘Mau ke mana?’ I asked. Where are you going? ‘Kuta’, he replied. After a brief chat we each relinquished the hand we held , wished him good night and promised to see him the following day.
The next morning at 6am the phone next to my hotel bed rang. Groggily I answered and instantly heard the strained quality in my father’s voice and then relief when he heard mine. He asked if we had seen the news. We hadn’t. There had been a terrorist attack.
Flicking on the Indonesian news, the very worst day of my life began.
Indonesian suicide bombers had set off huge bomb blasts in two popular nightspots in downtown Kuta, the centre of the Balinese tourist trade, and over 200 hundred people, the majority of whom were Australian, had been killed. Scores of others had been horrifically injured.
Indonesian media were streaming uncensored footage. We saw body parts and corpses that were barely recognisable as human being stretchered from the site. We saw dazed and damaged victims wandering like spectres through the ash and rubble.
The same media outlets, running with whatever rumours were circulating in the absence of hard facts, were speculating there were more bombs in tourist spots around the island and large ones set to explode at the airport as tourists inevitably tried to flee.
I had no idea what to do. Unsurprisingly, given the scale of the carnage and chaos, we couldn’t reach the Australian Consulate in Bali and the hotel staff, bless them, had no idea either. Not only that they, poor souls, had to continue working as news started to filter down from Kuta that made them fear for the safety of their family and friends.
My husband remained as calm and controlled as I’ve ever seen him. He was stunning. His military training for disaster really came to the fore. But as much comfort as I derived from him (and that was an enormous amount) it didn’t actually make me feel any safer.
As the morning wore on injured people began to trickle back into the hotel. Young men and women with bloodied bandages, bits of glass embedded in their skin, cuts and bruises. Bare chested, one man had the silhouette of where the top of his t-shirt had been outlined in ash.
The sun shone on. The bar stayed open. It was surreal.
Somehow my father managed to get us on the first flight out of Bali to Sydney that night.
In mid-afternoon we caught a taxi to the airport. Apologising profusely to the gorgeous Balinese at the reception desk of the hotel we insisted they keep our week’s payment for accommodation. I dreaded to think of the effect the attacks were going to have on tourism; by far Bali’s major source of income.
We had a surreal trip to the airport. Giving the site of the attacks a wide berth, I was kind of stunned to see Balinese people and even tourists going about their daily business. Weren’t they aware the earth had shifted on its axis? Didn’t they know about the decimation, devastation, terror, horror , the ruins of which were still smoking just a few blocks from where they were?
Of course they carried on. As is right. As the world does despite whatever madness occurs. I just couldn’t quite grasp it that point. The disconnect was making my head spin.
After driving through several hastily erected check points staffed by jittery military personnel and police we finally arrived at the airport. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or more terrified.
Was what the media were saying correct? Was this where we would be caught up in another blast? Would this one kill us?
Should we walk the hallways, huddle down in a departure lounge, take shelter in an airline lounge? I didn’t feel safe anywhere.
For no good reason eventually we decided the lounge was our safest alternative . The juxtaposition between the quiet elegance of the lounge and my state of mind was jilting.
At one point I wandered out onto the outdoor terrace. The sun was setting and just beyond the barbed-wire perimeter that delineated the airport boundaries, the setting sun was casting golden streaks on the waves that gently lapped a sandy shore. It was as beautiful as ever.
As I watched, two Australian military Hercules planes landed with a roar and taxied away to another part of the airport.
A short time later the private military plane of Megawati Soekarnoputri, Indonesia’s president at the time, landed and taxied to a stop on a nearby runway. As I watched, Megawati descended the stairs, hopped straight into a waiting limousine to be whisked away to tour the site of the attacks.
Our flight was delayed as we waited for the team of paramedics that were going to accompany our flight home to arrive on their mercy dash flight in from Australia.
Finally we boarded and I will never forget the eerie silence on board. There was none of the chatter and jostle that usually accompanies pre-take-off. Everyone was sombre, cowed, shocked, frightened, silent.
Soon, people injured in the blasts began to make their way on board. Many were still in the clothes, or what remained of them, from the night before. Many were hooked up to portable drips. Draped in blankets, they were helped to shuffle on board by the amazing team of paramedics that flew back with us.
There were more people with bloodied bandages around their heads, with cuts and bandaged limbs. With faces hollow with shock and pain. With incomprehension. The face of the young fellow sitting next to me was still dirty with ash and dust from the blast, his hair matted and grimy. It was all I could do not to put my arms around a complete stranger.
Some bore much more serious injuries. These were people who, in all other circumstances would have been medically evacuated. And these were still the relatively unscathed.
The Hercules I had seen landing earlier became makeshift airborne emergency departments that transported those poor souls too drastically injured to fly with us, of which there were many, home to Australia.
As the captain finally instructed the crew to prepare the cabin for take off, a young teenage girl across the aisle from me began to rock back and forth in her seat, arms crossed across her chest, keening.
A flight attendant rushed to the spare seat beside her, belted herself in next to the girl and put her arms around her as she sobbed.
As tears of relief, pent-up terror and disbelief started to finally pour down my cheeks I turned to Andrew and said “Why is she on her own? Where are her parents?’ I realised the answer before the words were even out of my mouth.
News reports later confirmed what I already knew. She had gone to Bali on mother-daughter trip and her lost her mother in the blasts.
I will never ever forget that girls’ sobs. They will haunt me forever.
We had been in Bali less than 24 hours.
Arriving home I wanted to do nothing more than hide under the bed and never come out. I couldn’t be in crowds, was suspicious of every parked van, felt nervous whenever planes flew overhead. Everything seemed threatening.
I boxed up my by then quite extensive library of Indonesian reference and language books and consigned them to storage. I never wanted to see them again. Never wanted to speak another word of Indonesian. Just wanted to forget.
After a few weeks back in Australia, the extent of the psychological effect on me started to make itself felt. I catastrophised everything. Every balcony was about to collapse, every flight was going to crash, attacks would be perpetrated at any moment. It got to the point where, sitting in my office at the law firm I worked for I fully expected terrorists to suddenly rappel down the sides and take everyone hostage – as Australian media had reported video footage from training caps in Pakistan and Afghanistan showed recruits training to do just that. I felt like I was in a living nightmare. I felt unsafe all the time. My perspective was entirely gone.
How I ever made it to Rome to live just 4 or 5 months later I will never know. I suppose we are always stronger than we give ourselves credit for. But I was still deeply wary. After the catastrophic attacks in Madrid the following March I stopped catching Rome’s underground and indeed, cocooned myself in our apartment for some weeks. I felt like Al Qaeda had followed me to Europe. I was convinced Italy, an ally to the US and seat of Catholic Christianity was the next target. Unsurprisingly there were periods of depression that followed these events.
The London terror attacks set me back again. And it seemed everyone we knew who was there had a story about how close they had been, how if they had just caught one train earlier they too would have been in that very carriage when the bombs exploded…etc etc. Once again, it was far too few degrees of separation for any comfort.
The more recent attacks on the Australian Embassy and Marriot Hotel in Jakarta simply confirmed to me I would never be able to return to the place I loved above all others.
Having lived in and fallen in love with Rome in the intervening period gave me some comfort but I was still left with a deep-seated ache for the place I fell in love with first and for its people who had been so gentle, kind and beautiful to me.
I’ve had varying degrees of psychological therapy over the years to deal with this. A large part of me struggles with the fact that I have been so affected and yet wasn’t directly, or at least physically, injured. I almost feel I don’t have the right have been so traumatised. I mean, some of the survivors who are permanently disfigured, who lost family and friends have had much more courage and resilience than I. They’ve returned to Bali; they’ve not let the terrorists win by changing how they go about their daily lives. And that is in spite of being in the actual nightclubs where the attacks occurred.
I’ve always been an extra, some might say overly, sensitive soul.
So here’s the thing. I certainly haven’t hidden away. Since then, we’ve lived overseas, we’ve travelled extensively, I’ve learned to control my fears to some extent but the one thing I’ve never been able to do is return to Indonesia.
Until now. It’s been almost 15 years since I was in Jakarta and 10 years since Bali.
I don’t know what shifted in me all of a sudden. But something definitely did. And as soon as it did I seized it with both hands and let it carry me back here.
So this is kind of momentous for me.
And I wanted to share that with you.
If you’ve read to here, bless you! I know this is such heavy stuff but I couldn’t just write post entitled ‘Here I am in Jakarta’ and give the impression it was just another stop on what has been an unexpectedly full year of travelling for me.
And how am I feeling now I’m here? Kind of like I’m home again.
And when this fellow slid his palm gently across mine in greeting after I took his photo, the deep joy that welled up inside me brought tears to my eyes.
So there will be a few posts coming up from this amazing, beautiful city which is still as chaotic, humid, crowded and run-down as ever. Just the way I like it.