Agam's Gecko
Friday, April 08, 2005
I had planned to write something this week about the passing of John Paul II, but since last Friday I've been moving office again. After about 6 months in "the broomcloset", the plush but tastefully appointed editing suites of Agam's Gecko are now located high above the public office of our "front" operation, with panoramic views over the River of Kings.

Well ok, not quite, but relatively speaking we now edit in complete opulence. I may even entice The Gecko to begin writing again -- he boycotted his namesake after the last move from our previous expansive but modest quarters next door, and into the closet next to the service entrance. It seems like all we've been doing for the past year is moving. This one was occasioned by myself and S. moving last month into an actual house in the neighbourhood, thus vacating the two rooms where we'd been living for these six months. That in itself was a major lifestyle change, going from having an entire 4 story shophouse to live in, and squeezing it all into these two rooms.

Well, now I can actually see outside in two directions, one being the endlessly fascinating street scene in front of our public "front" operation. Now, to go "home" entails not simply climbing a single flight of stairs, but about a 10 minute bike ride (with the newest addition to the family, "Bear" nestled in a backpack worn on my front). Heck, I've even got air-con now -- luxury, I tell ya! Anyway, that's what I've been doing all week (and it ain't finished yet).

The passing of Karol Wojtila last weekend is clearly a major world event, and in a few hours his funeral is expected to be the largest funeral service in world history. I am not a Catholic, but I can certainly recognise a great and good man when I see one. Yes, he was a conservative on moral and religious issues, but he was also a courageous advocate for human freedom and dignity -- especially in the face of brutal totalitarian communism. He gave his strength and courage to the budding movement for freedom and democracy in his native country, and the result was the growth and moral force of the Solidarnosc movement that emerged from the shipyards of Gdansk, and what would be the beginning of the end for Soviet tyranny over Poland, and the rest of Eastern Europe. As a young man, he studied at an underground seminary in Nazi-occupied Poland, in much the same way Roman Catholics today must meet in secret underground churches in communist-ruled China. After liberation from Nazi totalitarianism, he continued (along with so many of his countrymen) to resist Soviet totalitarianism before and after becoming John Paul II. With this background of his unstinting support for freedom and human rights, it is distressing to hear that the Vatican may be considering to withdraw it's recognition of Taiwan in favour of the freedom-denying regime in Peking.

There has been a lot written about this life over the past week, but for some of the most poignant remembrances, see some of Arthur Chrenkoff's writings of his boyhood in Poland, his personal and family experiences of the Bishop of Kracow, and what John Paul II (soon to be known by Catholics as "John Paul the Great", I've heard) meant for his country's freedom, for Europe and the world. This eulogy by Charles Krauthammer is also a very powerful piece which says it much better than I could.

But the man I'm thinking of mostly this week, was another good and faithful servant of his God, and one that I will miss dearly. I wrote recently that Agam's Acehnese Mother and Father were brought back from Tapaktuan by their eldest son, to stay in Jakarta, and that they would be there at least until after next Ramadan. I had wanted to go down and visit with them soon, but hadn't yet been able to make a plan as to when I could go. Bapak Abdul Aziz took ill and passed away last week, which is the other part of why Agam hasn't felt much like writing here.

Pak Aziz really was like a second father to me, and we met on my first visit to Tapaktuan in 1990, a little more than five years after my own father died. I'd reached the town not knowing anything about it, and having no plans either for staying, or where to go next. After spending the first night sharing a room at Losmen Jambu with my Austrian friend Rudi, I headed back to the bus station to find info for onward travel. Besieged by virtually everyone in the little terminal with 10,000 questions (actually, 10,000 versions of the standard 8 questions), I sought quiet sanctuary within a coffee shop in the terminal. Soon enough, my brother-to-be Uddin entered the shop with a few friends, spotted me, and feeling sorry for anybody drinking coffee alone, they naturally joined me at my table. Uddin's companions were most of the staff of the local FM radio staion NUZULA, located just across from the terminal. Having only been in Indonesia less than two weeks, my language ability was still quite rudimentary. But we were able to exchange basic information (one learns how to respond to the standard 8 questions fairly quickly), and then Uddin offered to take me on his motorbike down to the bookstore so we could get an English-Indonesian dictionary, and thus facilitate communication.

I'm sure that either on the way to the bookstore, or on the way back to NUZULA, we stopped in at his home to meet his family. Bapak Abdul Aziz and Ibu Ramyas were obviously very kind and gentle folk, and so openly welcoming toward this foreigner. They both made me promise not to leave Tapaktuan too soon, and to come back and see them as often as I could. Then Uddin, and he who was about to be named Agam, were off again in a cloud of dust and small stones. Back to Radio NUZULA, to drink some more of the best coffee on earth, chat with friends in the control room, and meet the prime time DJ, Yan. Yan spoke a bit of English, which of course helped the rest of us out considerably, but already I could tell that this was the beginning of something special. The unqualified acceptance of a stranger into their circle, was something that impressed me a lot -- I'd not experienced that to such an extent in any other Asian country. For the first time, I felt that I wasn't seen as an "other" or as something strange, but just simply as a brother human who happened to have a different language, and to originate from farther away than usual.

That evening, my second in Tapaktuan, I was interviewed live on-air by Yan in NUZULA's studio. I'd had some preparation from Uddin and others, teaching me some simple phrases to answer Yan's questions, for the interview would be conducted in Indonesian. Yes, it was incredible to be accepted and taken in on equal terms, but I suppose I was also somewhat newsworthy for the little town, having come from Canada and having visited a few Asian countries already. I was nervous as hell to go on live radio, using a language I was just getting familiar with. But it went alright -- though I'm sure listeners could have heard me leafing feverishly through my dictionary while trying to keep up with Yan. After the interview we went outside to relax and smoke etc., and several people who'd been listening had already come down to the station to meet me!

In these first few days, my travelling companion Rudi (we had decided to travel together for a bit -- the only time during that year that I did so -- just a short while earlier in Medan, when he told me what he knew about Aceh and I agreed it sounded good... i.e. very few tourists) also made a good friend in Uddin's best friend Azir. So for the duration of our stay in Tapaktuan, Rudi rode with Azir and I rode with Uddin, to some of the most amazingly beautiful places I'd ever seen. Quiet clean bays, spectacular waterfalls, caves, forests, fabulous little coastal towns, every single day. Amidst all this coming and going on adventures up and down the South Aceh coast, were many stops in to Uddin's home, and more time getting acquainted with his mother and father. After a few days, Uddin told me his family wanted me to move out of the losmen (something like a cross between a boarding house and a small hotel, often used by travelling salesmen and the like), and to stay in their home.

Azir's family had made the same offer to Rudi, but he felt more comfortable keeping a bit of privacy for himself, so he stayed at Losmen Jambu. I decided that I may as well leap in with both feet, the whole Tapaktuan experience being just so amazing that I couldn't refuse. Plus, I really wanted to spend more time getting to know Uddin's mum and dad with my rapidly improving language capability. It was difficult at times to be completely immersed in this new language environment, for the first time to have no one around to speak my own language with. Uddin and I would spend hours sitting on the floor in his room, while he patiently taught me how his language worked and we thumbed through the Indonesian - English kamus. At times my head would spin, but it was worth it, and I became closer every day with Ibu and Bapak.

There was no way I wanted to go anywhere else, Tapaktuan was as close to heaven as I thought might exist on this earth. So many good friends met, so many wonderful places to adventure. I stayed with them as long as I dared, leaving just enough time to make my way out of the country before my 2 month visa expired. Rudi left before me, by bus. I took a passage on a small cargo vessel to Padang, thence by bus to Pekanbaru to board a big old ferryboat to Tanjung Pinang, from where I could catch a fast boat to Singapore. By this time I was known as Agam -- the name bequeathed by our friend Yose Rizal because so many people had trouble with my name, and because they wanted me to become an Acehnese (and I think, to come and live there forever -- which certainly was a temptation).

Pak Aziz and I had a special connection or affinity, which I can't really properly describe. We were much alike I think. There was so much I wanted to learn from him, and he seemed to feel the same way. On that first visit and every subsequent visit, we spent increasing amount of time together, just the two of us. I would go up the mountain with him to help with his nutmeg trees, carrying the fruits down to home where the whole family would sit on the floor of their little house and process the valuable spices, which were the main product of this area.

Nutmeg fruits are about the size of large apricots, and one slices around the fruit to open it and take out the seed. The fruit is very bitter, but people make it into a variety of dried sweets (with lots of sugar!). The nutmeg itself is partly enveloped by a strange looking pink or mauve growth with a rubbery texture, which is referred to as the bunga, or flower (though of course it isn't a flower at all). These are separated off the nut with a knife and collected in a basket -- these bunga are the most valuable part, and is what we know as mace. The nutmegs -- what my friend Rudi always humourously called "megnuts" -- are packed in bushel bags and sold to traders who sell them on for further processing. Nutmeg oil is also made. One will see the mace "flowers" drying on mats along roadsides and driveways, as well as the nutmegs, coffee, coconut and other local products. Riding around Tapaktuan was always an amazing olifactory experience!

Pak Aziz was quite interested in knowing about current and world events, politics and such, as of course I am also. He would tell me about life in Aceh during the Japanese occupation, and during the indpendence struggle. He had been a member of Masyumi before it was banned by Suharto. After the supposedly attempted coup d'etat in the mid 60's and subsequent violent elimination of the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) that took hundreds of thousands of lives, all remaining political parties were merged. Secular / nationalist parties were merged by Suharto into the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), and Muslim parties like Masyumi were merged into the Development Unity Party (PPP). The smiling general compiled his "functional groups" of society into GOLKAR, which was his vehicle to power for the next 30 years. I felt privileged to be able to converse with Pak Aziz about these times, and even the pre-war Dutch colonial era.

As I became more capable with Indonesian conversation, our talks could reach to deeper subjects, and we would sit for hours outside on his porch watching the world go by, talking about religions and philosophic subjects, world politics and basically everything. I will cherish these memories forever. He taught me much about his religion and world view, what it meant for him to be a good man. Through these times with him, and with Ibu also I must add, I came to know what the true soul of Islam is. The last time I saw him, we spoke a lot about the already apparent growth of fundamentalist, intolerant streams within his religion. Although he and his wife were certainly very devout Muslims, this type of intolerance was completely foreign to them. Here they had a non-Muslim living in their home, interested to talk with me about my own beliefs and to fully respect them, to accept me for all those years as a true member of their family with such generosity and love.

When it was time to pray, if he didn't go to the masjid, Bapak would excuse himself from our conversation in the sitting room, and I would sit and feel so peaceful listening to both of them in their room, softly singing and saying prayers. Then he would return, and we'd just pick up where we left off. What was the latest news from Jakarta that I'd heard via my little shortwave radio? It was April 1998, the students were agitating for Suharto to resign (which he would the following month). I felt good that I could be a conduit for information, the only thing available otherwise was TVRI the state run broadcaster.

Bapak and Ibu suffered the loss of their youngest son, my brother Uddin, the following year. He had been abducted by an unknown group on the day of a province-wide mass demonstration for a referendum in Aceh. From what I understand, the idea of a referendum had almost universal support -- this was before the crackdown on independence supporters and the activities of the armed separatist movement became more like open warfare, as it did two years later. Uddin was taken to another town that afternoon (after having ridden with the massive convoy to Banda Aceh and back), and killed. Some say it was because he refused to join GAM, others say because he refused to rat out on GAM. Maybe someday we'll know who and why, but his body was never found -- and this was the most difficult thing for his mother and father. But mother most especially. She suffered a mental breakdown after this, and Bapak cared for her in very difficult circumstances.

Bapak Abdul Aziz was, in his quiet and humble way, also a great and good man, a faithful servant of his God. To be a faithful servant of God meant being a kind and compassionate man, a man with integrity. He was also a man of good humour. He had one of those infectious laughs -- always with a bright sparkle in his eyes -- that one will never forget. Even long after I'd left them, usually tearfully but less so with each visit because of the knowledge that I'd return, I could hear his voice and his laughter in my mind long afterwards. I can hear it now, clear as if he were here with me. Go well, Bapak, until we meet again. Selamat Jalan, and sampai ketemu lagi. It was an honour to be considered as your son.

I though I'd feel like writing a bit more on some newsy stuff I collected this week, if only to pass on the links before they get too old. Maybe tomorrow. It just doesn't seem right to opine about anything else right now. Just a couple of things about Adscam (Canadians know) and Iraq. Later. Oh, I'm hoping to go down and see Ibu soon in Jakarta and give her some support. I just wish I could have done it last month....

LATE UPDATE: Blogger has been having hiccups today, lots of strange responses and weird redirections, and I've been trying to get this post accepted for hours.

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