Letter from Jakarta

To leave or not to leave? Jeff Pulice vividly describes his own reaction and the reactions of his expatriate friends to the turmoil in the streets and the uncertainties ahead.

By Jeff Pulice
May 22, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
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JAKARTA, Indonesia -- May 20: "The American Embassy advises all American citizens to avoid nonessential travel to Indonesia at this time. American citizens are urged to leave Indonesia."

I bang the top of the monitor with my fist. I knew that the rise in fuel and food prices would drive people into the streets. I knew that there might be some looting and that maybe my Chinese/Sudanese/Dutch wife and her family might need to stay off the streets for a few days.


But now I am being asked to leave. Seven years of teaching, of making friends from every circle of Indonesian society -- would I run?

My cell phone, both land lines and my e-mail are flying with messages. My friends and family here are desperate for information -- what's burning? Who's been hurt? Where is safe? My U.S. friends and family are simply sticking to one message: "Get out. Get out now!"


Paul, my best friend here, calls, worried.

"Uh, buddy, how would you feel about me coming out and staying with you a few days?"

CNN says the roads are blocked, Singapore's Straits Times says looters are pulling non-Indonesians from their cars. My house is big and easy to defend with high walls and guards, but Paul is all the way across the city.


"Do it. If you can't make it through, pull back to the embassy. Watch for me on the road."

"I'll bring meat."

"Don't bring a damn thing, just get here. Trust your driver -- if he thinks you should pull back, pull back."

My wife watches as I get ready to go out, her lovely face clouded with worry. "Please don't go. I'm serious, Jeffrey."


I kiss her and tell her to call my cell phone if the trouble starts moving toward us.

On my bike, I am the usual big white galoot the locals have come to know around my neighborhood. In a car, I might be the enemy. On a mountain bike in shiny shorts, I'm just some foolish tourist out exercising.

I come to the head of the street to find that a mob has blocked off the road. I ride through, smiling and asking what's going on. "Isip-isip, doang," is the answer -- just playing. I don't look at the men -- they seem edgy, as if the battle to get rid of their leader, President Suharto, might have to be fought at the gates of the university they stand in front of.


Down the road, a car is burning. It's a Timor, one of the cars the president's son decided to import illegally. I get on the phone and warn all my Timor-driving friends to stay off the roads.

I see trucks begin to turn around -- but I also see a way to get through. I look back down the road and see Paul's white Isuzu Panther slowing down. I fish my phone out of my bag as it starts to ring.

"Paul, I see you."


"Haris says we can't make it."

I think hard for a moment.
"I'll ride you through; you can make the turn. They know me."
The driver takes the turn slowly as I wait, pacing me as I ride next to them. The crowd parts; I'm glad I don't have to do this in an area where I'm not known.
Paul's smile of relief is priceless. "I've got three big tenderloins," he says, patting a parcel from the restaurant he manages.
We get to the house and big hugs ensue. Paul is wiped out.
"Troops were walking up and down my street all night. Downtown is -- it's gone, Jeff. It's just gone."
I hand him over to my wife and get back on the Net.
"The American Embassy is bringing in evacuation flights for all American citizens ... Meet at midnight at the International School. One carry-on bag is allowed."
I don't even consider it. I'm caught up in the moment, adrenalin substituting for common sense. I don't think about a new president here after 32 years of the same -- let's call it "creative fund-raising." I don't think about every one of my private students -- the source of the bulk of my revenue -- going to Korea or Singapore to wait the fires out. I certainly don't think about figuring out what to put in a carry-on bag. My attitude is: I've been here for seven years. I live here.

Now I'm back out on the bike, riding through the rural kampungs,
looking for
information and cans of Coke, which will probably be worth their weight in
gold tonight. Women in the villages ask me for news, knowing our
has a satellite dish. Three young people I know ask me to find them jobs.
out here, it's almost as if the drama on the roads and in the city is on
another planet.

I am constantly stopping to take calls. The image of a great big white guy
on a green bicycle, on a path in the jungle, stopping and speaking a foreign
language into a cell phone -- if that isn't conspicuous, I don't know what is.


Most of the calls go like this:

Them: "Should I go?"

Me: "I can't answer that."

Them: "Well, are you going?"

Me: "No, but remember -- I'm not that bright."

JC, my occasional boss, calls. He had to run from two mobs and climb fences all night, finally reaching his house at dawn to see his neighbors turned into vigilantes, ready to defend their homes with 5-irons and cricket bats.
"Jeff, please get down here. The school is ruined, all the windows have been smashed. Come and get me -- help me ..."
In the car, I tell my driver to take me to Chinatown, to the heart of it.
The first thing I notice are the tanks. Would the soldiers really shoot their own people? Or are they here to protect the first family's interests, their banks, their car showrooms?


Looking down the street, I can see nothing but gutted buildings, the scattered survivors bearing signs attesting Milik Pribumi -- "owned by native Indonesians." I think about my in-laws, living here for three generations, employing hundreds of Indonesians in their businesses -- will those people be happy, now that the jobs are gone? No one has thought this through. It has struck like a snake.
JC greets me with, "Don't hug me or I'll start crying." All the windows of all the businesses are smashed, every store in the neighboring mall looted. We quickly grab the valuables, stopping to laugh every few moments -- him with relief, me with the pure joy of being here, of deciding not to run. We load up and head out.
On the way to my house, my father calls on my cell phone, worried out of his mind, asking me to leave. I calm him as I watch cars burning.
At the house, I shift from the Net to CNN to Australian News Service to CNBC, cursing as CNN decides to pay tribute to Frank Sinatra. He had a lovely voice and was a heck of a swingin' cat, maybe even a hell of an American -- but could we please go back to coverage of my world that is burning down around me?

We cheer and salute Maria Ressa, CNN's local voice -- she hasn't left. We sit and eat our siege rations (beef cooked in coconut milk, sweet buns with spiced beef, Bintang beer) and make scabrous comments about the talking heads from the States, analyzing a situation they are not here to see.

May 22: We settle into a routine. Unable to work, I write and sleep
and ride. My wife relishes the thought of cooking for a full household and
makes her famous spaghetti sauce. Paul practices magic tricks.
In the afternoon, we go to the second floor and look for smoke, trying to
discern burning trash from burning buildings.

I hear that one of my students was beaten
after being dragged from his car. Another source tells of rioters blocking
the roads to the airport and beating up anyone who is not native Indonesian
-- pribumi. These
stories are hard to relate to the gentle, kind Indonesians I have come to
know and love.


I am picking over saffron rice with chicken when I hear
screams from our TV room. I rush upstairs -- is our office finally gone? Is
the Old Man dead?

I find everyone around the television, mouths gaping open,
my wife's relatives shaking their heads and jabbering in Chinese and
Indonesian at the same time. I shout for news. Paul turns to me.
"He quit. Suharto quit. Habibie's in."
Now it's my turn to gape. Thirty-two years, hundreds intimidated and
billions of dollars "redirected" -- and it all ends like this? In a quiet room
on TV?

This man has colored the lives here like a painting you see every day,
morning until night. Imagine how you would feel if the painting went away.

We try to grasp what this might mean for the future:
unity; a lowering of the centuries-long discrimination against
Indonesian-Chinese; an end to police shakedowns based on ethnicity; peace.
But mostly, an end to the feeling of not being allowed to talk.

We called
him Bapak, Father, and in Javanese culture the father rules the home
completely, accepting no dissent. This "father" ruled this country, and no
one made jokes. People got in trouble for drawing cartoons of him.

I simply can't see the new president, B.J. Habibie, being treated with the
same deference. There simply isn't the same potential for fear. I look at
his face and I feel -- I feel that he might be as surprised at this turn of
events as I am.

I take a quick ride down to the University of Indonesia. The young
protesters are
laughing, some are blowing their noses, the way you do after you've cried
for a long time.

I ask them what they think of their new leader.

There is some laughter.

But that's a lot better than the angry shouts of the weeks past.

At night, a friend here calls me. He's on his way to the airport. He asks me if I'm leaving. I want to say something profound, something I'll remember, something American.

But the fact is, I can't think of anything profound to say. All I know is how I feel.

After we hang up, I think of the "we few, we happy few" speech from "Henry V." If I had decided to leave, would I have "cursed myself and held my manhood cheap," as King Harry said? I don't know. I'm just glad I didn't have to find out.

Jeff Pulice

Originally from Los Angeles, Jeff Pulice has been living and working in Jakarta for the past seven years.

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