The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, May 28, 2007



A year ago today (Sunday 27 May) we were driving north back to Surabaya from Malang and had just entered the toll road at Gempol, about 30 kilometers south of the East Java capital.

Although wet-season downpours and holiday traffic could sometimes cause problems, the journey was usually trouble free. Having palmed the plastic card at the tollgate it was normally a 20-minute clear run home down the three-lane highway.

But not this Sunday.

For about two kilometers it was a first-gear crawl. The problem was muddy water on the road, though it hadn't rained for weeks.

From the inside lane we watched the flooded paddy cascading onto the bitumen as men and machines tried to channel the black ooze into a ditch.

Beyond the rice rose a giant cloud of steam, smoke and gas. The smell was sickening.

What had happened? The sweat-soaked workmen only knew that a few hours earlier mud had suddenly started gushing out of the ground in huge quantities. Alongside was a tall gas-drilling rig that had been in place several months.

Even as our tyres sloshed slowly through the slime it was clear this was no minor event. Scores of hectares had already been drowned and the water was cascading out of the fields like a river in flood.

The number of mechanical and human ditch diggers showed the company also realized this was big time serious. But official statements played down the obvious. A minor matter that would soon cease.

A month earlier I'd sought permission to visit the rig. I thought it might make an interesting business story little knowing it was soon to become an international page one event. But journalists weren't welcome on site.

Last month I re-ran the route. The tollway entrance is now closed. So is an alternative road through the village of Porong.

A major bridge has been demolished before it collapsed, undermined by the rushing waters. Thin lines of terracotta roof ridges poking above the mud show where busy villages once thrived.

The shortest way to the East Java capital now lies through jalan tikus (rat roads), the narrow, twisting, potholed tracks that link villages around Porong. On this trip there were 17 roadblocks where thugs extorted money for using 'their' streets.

Until it became torn and faded, a sign on the now shattered bridge read: "We too, are suffering" meaning the toll road operators.

They are surely losing millions but they'll survive. Not so the little folk who keep complaining that they've received inadequate compensation – or none at all.

Leaving aside who is to blame, the need for top-down total action has been apparent all along. And found wanting.

In talking to the victims one line resonates: "We hope someone will do something soon."

Hope? That's what citizens do in an authoritarian regime. In a democracy electors demand.

For an outsider it seems that the government and companies involved have ruthlessly exploited the fine Javanese cultural traits of mutual respect, living in harmony and sharing hardships.

Instead of rushing to assist, declaring a state of emergency and giving these dirt farmers and petty traders the help they need, those with the money and power have urged patience.

And what about the human rights' lawyers, religious organizations and grassroots activists who love shaking fists and chanting slogans? A few put their hands up in the early days of the disaster, but no clear champions have emerged.

Why aren't we all outraged, demanding proper assistance for these most distressed and wronged people whose right to live secure lives has been ignored?

The principles of Pancasila include social justice, where all are given care by the State. When last checked there was no budget-airfare small print reading: Conditions Apply.

When some victims went to Jakarta they didn't draw the big aggressive crowds that supporters and defenders of the anti-pornography bill raised last year. There's been no fury of the masses, no nation-mesmerizing debate.

So what lesson has been learned in the past twelvemonth? That the livelihoods and future of the blameless poor of Porong are less important than titillating magazines and what women wear. Dirty villages rank lower than dirty books.

In brief - mud volcanoes aren't sexy.

(First published in The Sunday Post 27 May 2007)



Sunday, May 27, 2007



Most nations now recognize the value of tourism. All Indonesians who've been exposed to the jolly come-and-see-us-soon ads run by our neighbors please show your boarding passes.

The government-backed campaigns seem to reap a rich harvest. Malaysia claims almost 17 million annual visitors, while tiny Singapore with little to promote other than hectares of shopping space is expecting 10 million.

Meanwhile we're bumping along with less than 5 million when we have so much more to offer in culture, lifestyle and landscapes. What's the problem? Duncan Graham reveals some of the secrets of a world leader in tourism:


New Zealand is a tiny country about one-seventh the size of Indonesia. It's also easy to get around. The infrastructure is efficient. The roads are fast and open, the towns small and compact.

So why do experienced travelers recommend a visit of at least one month? Cynics might say that it's all a cunning plot by crafty Kiwis; the longer you stay the more your wallet slims.

Kinder folk say it takes at least four weeks just to travel one island – and even then not see all that's on offer.

Last year visitors left NZ $6.6 billion (Rp 42 trillion) behind, making tourism one of the nation's major foreign exchange earners, sometimes eclipsing wool, meat, fruit and dairy foods – the traditional deliverers of dollars.

Every year the Indonesian government publishes its visitor targets. Last year 5 million were expected. About 4.8 million allegedly turned up – but who trusts such figures?

This year vice president Jusuf Kalla says 6 million should come to the archipelago – and has ordered 12 tourist promotion offices overseas to be reopened. The budget to lure world wanderers is reported to be Rp 158 billion (US $ 17.6 million). Stand by for lots of meaningless slogans.

NZ authorities aware that events outside their control (like fuel costs, air fares and terrorism) can knock predictions askew, are more cautious with forecasts. They shouldn't be – the figures go up by 1.5 per cent every year.

Last year more than 2.4 million foreigners slipped down to the South Pacific islands – that's 60 per cent of the resident population. If these statistics could be replicated in Indonesia we'd have about 150 million visitors a year. Imagine what that would do to the traffic congestion.

To be fair the Indonesian shortfalls can't all be blamed on inept promotion and clumsy marketing, though these are major factors. Travel warnings by Western governments don't help. Indonesia gets a lousy press overseas that’s enough to deter all but the hardy.

Who'd want to spend their holidays risking bird flu in the villages and dengue fever in the cities, tsunamis on the coast and earthquakes in the hinterland? Who'd willingly choose to travel on suspect planes and ferries? These events are isolated and relatively rare; but try telling that to the nervous Nellies who can select from scores of countries that seldom make the headlines.

With such handicaps Indonesia can do only one thing: Try harder.

That's what they've done in NZ, a land also prone to natural disasters. The shaky isles are well named with shudders, rumbles and occasional eruptions from the country's active volcanoes and fidgety tectonic plates.

There are about 14,000 earthquakes every year, though less than 150 are serious. In February Auckland was rocked by a 4.5 Richter scale quake, the biggest since 1970.

While keyboarding this story scientists were checking levels in the crater lake of Mount Ruapehu in the center of NZ's North Island. The rim was expected to rupture sending a vast torrent of lahar (a slurry of ash, water and rock) thundering down the slopes.

If and when that happens loss of life and destruction of towns is not expected. The lahar will be channeled away to the sea and the event will become another tourist attraction, not a national emergency.

NZ has been blessed with luscious landscapes, natural features and different cultures; so has Indonesia, a country much closer to the world's big population centers. NZ is far away at the bottom of the world. Distances deter and great distances deter greatly.

So how have the Kiwis made the hospitality industry a top earner, while Indonesia reaps more by exporting poor workers, not importing affluent visitors?

The difference is in the management. For NZ tourism is a serious business done professionally to world standards. It's been that way for more than 100 years, and the population seems to understand its importance. They want to share their good fortune in living in Godzone (God's Own Country) – and by doing so snare your fortunes.

In Indonesia tourism promotion outside Bali is a joke, an opportunity for battalions of bureaucrats who've never been abroad to fudge figures and sigh about the lack of resources. Meanwhile private enterprise waits for the government to improve the infrastructure.

The other factor is public support. It's rare to meet a Kiwi in a hotel or shop who isn't prepared to help, however absurd the query. Ten per cent of the workforce gets its income from incomers – and most locals want visitors to have a good time.

High quality free brochures and maps are everywhere. A system of national training and accreditation means most visitor centers (known as I-Sites) turn on a sparkling service.

Indonesians are equally friendly – but lack accurate information, as anyone would testify who has asked for directions from a roadside eatery and been given ten different instructions.

However the NZ mateship stops short of language skills. The bigger centers like Wellington and Auckland have Japanese speakers, and some attractions supply multi-lingual commentaries (not including Indonesian, a language no longer taught at universities). But otherwise NZ is monolingual.

The national tongue is supposed to be English, but on the palates of Kiwis it's more a scrambled form of Scottish. Go to church and you'll be invited to sing hums and uther gud thungs.

The other complaint is the standard Asian disgust with closing times; shopaholics have to go cold turkey after 5 pm. In summer it's still daylight at 8.30 pm and later still in the South Island.

So do what the locals do – recreate. Kiwis reckon that life is better spent in the great outdoors than in shopping malls. It's a lot healthier and the air-conditioning is natural.


Earthquakes in populated areas are tragic events, as the people of Yogya know well. So do the folk of Napier on the east coast of NZ's North Island.

Mid morning of 3 February 1931 an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter
scale hit the town and surrounds, killing more than 250 and flattening the city.
Fire followed. About 40 square kilometers of seabed was heaved out of the ocean. "The land was like a bucking horse," said one survivor.

In most places such an awful occasion would be remembered by solemn services but Napier has turned the crash into cash. When the earth opened, so did the opportunities.

Napier was rapidly rebuilt in the Art Deco mode popular before the Great Depression hacked hope to shreds and triggered new global conflict. The geometric, pared-back style was supposed to reflect a clean, uncluttered era of peace and prosperity following the war to end all wars. It infected everything from architecture through fashion and into typography and vocabulary.

There used to be many Art Deco buildings in Indonesia, mainly in Bandung, Malang and Surabaya. Sadly most have been demolished by developers insensitive to heritage.

Not in Napier. The Philistines were kept away and Napier is now billed as having the most complete and significant collection of Art Deco buildings in the world.

Architects and designers have long known this and many have made the pilgrimage; now the public is fully conscious. For four days every February Napier turns on a splendid celebration of all things Art Deco. The hiss you hear isn't the sea-spray on the offshore breeze. It's the sweet sound of credit cards being skimmed.

The Roaring Twenties are recreated as the enthusiastic townsfolk and their guests, splendid in boaters and cloche hats, braces and black-seamed stockings step out the Charleston. These P G Wodehouse characters look just spiffing, really super! Pip, pip, Darling!

All are there to get into 'a not-too-serious' recall of the day the earth moved, and to recognize the survivors' determination to turn tragedy into triumph.

This year thousands poured into Napier from around the globe to watch or take part in more than 100 events. Most had a price tag attached. But if you've come from the other side of the world to indulge your fantasies by taking a spin in a 70-year old open-top 12-cylinder tourer wearing a fox fur, then cash is no consideration.

The Art Deco weekend is another example of Kiwi cleverness: Cultural and history tourism. Many cities around the world have architecture that draws crowds but none do it in quite the style of Napier.


Although NZ's main selling point is the country's natural beauty the pioneers of tourism reckoned that catering to all interests was the best way to retain visitors.

If you're not moved by the glacial speed of a glacier and don't get the hots for freezing fiords, try extreme sports, like kayaking, paragliding and canyoning. These guarantee an adrenalin fix, with bungy jumping a NZ specialty.

This involves throwing yourself off a bridge or platform high above a white-foamed river and hoping the elastic rope tied around your ankles hasn't passed its use-by date. Not recommended for those who suffer vertigo, wear skirts or insist on keeping passport, cash and car keys in their pockets.

Then there are mind exercises. If you love literature wander the writers' walks around Wellington, following quotable quotes etched in stone.

My favorite is by poet Lauris Edmond which sums up the NZ attitude: 'It's true you can't live here by chance, you have to do and be, not simply watch or even describe. This is the city of action, the world headquarters of the verb.'

Despite its tiny population NZ has produced a long column of authors, from Katherine Mansfield to Janet Frame – and a reel of great filmmakers. Local lad Peter Jackson is the current director of the decade.

Finding the locations where he shot the Lord of The Rings trilogy draws celebrity hunters who think the mountains and rivers the real movie stars. Cine-tourism.

Fascinated by farming? Watch sheep shuffle and dogs do canine capers in Rotorua and elsewhere while you understand more about wool and get gently fleeced at the same time. Agro-tourism.

More interested in the hard sciences? Long before the world started worrying about depleted stocks of fossil fuels, Kiwis were confronting the reality of living in a land with little oil and coal, and far from the suppliers.

So they exploited their topography and geology, making power from water (hydroelectricity) hot rocks (geothermal energy) and now wind.

At Woodville, about two hours drive north of Wellington is the latest venture, just two years old. The Te Apiti wind farm has 55 giant windmills stride across the hilltops looking like monsters from the War of the Worlds.

They generate enough power to satisfy 45,000 homes. Up close they sing a weird, celestial chorus as the 35-meter long blades slice through the air.

Like many other industries, wind-power generation has been added to the list of NZ tourist must-sees. So if you're feeling guilty about too much hedonism and reckon the kids need extra tuition in physics and maths, add electricity stations to your itinerary, go ape about amps and marvel at the foresight.

Other countries – including Indonesia - put KEEP OUT signs on their industrial enterprises. NZ opens the doors and tunnels, builds a kiosk up front selling entry tickets and touristy knick-knacks – and turns the turbines into money machines. Te Apiti is still free – a rarity in NZ. Visit soon before the cash registers are installed.

If Kiwis were handling East Java's Lapindo mud volcano be sure that by now it would be manufacturing megawatts and tourist dollars.


Garuda has dumped NZ from its schedules, but many other airlines serve the islands. Most routes go through Australia's east coast cities, so make sure your flight doesn't demand a prolonged stopover.

NZ immigration quarantine and customs are efficient but friendly. Their counterparts in Oz are grossly over-zealous, and demand another visa for long transit stops – so scrutinize flight details carefully.

To get best benefit from your bucks check ticket prices – there's currently a US $ 500 (Rp 4.5 million) gap between Royal Brunei at the bottom and Qantas at the top. At that difference it's worth taking the grog-free Muslim airline and an overnight stop in the Sultanate. Malaysian Air is somewhere between the two extremes.

Indonesian passport holders need a tourist visa. It costs Rp 700,000 and is valid for three months. More information and forms to download on

Public transport isn't widely used and is expensive. Hire rates for a reliable car start around NZ $30 (Rp 200,000) a day, more expensive during peak periods. It's worth buying extra insurance or you'll have to pay the first NZ $2,500 (Rp 16 million) for any accidental damage.

Motorhomes cost more but make you completely independent. However the big ones are awkward to handle in the cities where parking fees can cripple your budget.

NZ's infrastructure is designed for do-it-yourself independent travelers, with self-contained motels, tourist flats and camping grounds almost everywhere. Allocate NZ $200 (Rp 1.3 million) a day for a budget-conscious couple's transport, accommodation and food needs.

Who should go? Everyone – but especially Indonesian tourist officials and promoters who want to experience world's best practice and garner some great ideas.

(First published in The Weekender Magazine (JP) 25 May 07)



Monday, May 21, 2007



There's a lot of curiosity and much busyness among the mud and mangroves at a Kahayan River inlet in Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan.

Six carpenters are building cabins atop a stripped-down 20-meter former cargo boat bought by two foreigners with a dream. They want to introduce serious eco-tourism to the huge but almost empty province – and by doing so save the forests and the Dayaks who depend on them.

The inlet, with two primitive hand-cranked steel cable winches, is a local bush version of a dry dock though heavy rains have flooded the site. That hasn't deterred the workers who are racing to get the craft looking presentable for the 23 May celebrations of Central Kalimantan's 50th anniversary. (See sidebar)

When the cheering has faded and the bunting pulled down the engine will be installed, heaved in by muscle power for this open-air boatyard has few facilities. Then the fittings will be finessed to ensure they're of a standard to meet the needs of international clients.

The Dayak Hope will be a floating boutique hotel with five double cabins. It will be capable of sailing into the upper reaches of the province (known locally as Kalteng), giving eco-tourists the chance to see distant Dayak villages, wild (not rehabilitated) orangutans scrambling through the treetops and tropical flora and fauna.

For businesswomen Lorna Dowson-Collins and Gaye Thavisin this is a major undertaking. They plan to put the Indonesian part of Borneo on the world map of discerning tourists looking for experiences they can't get in Amsterdam or Adelaide.

The couple have already sunk more than US $60,000 (Rp 550 million) of their own money into the plan that includes development of a river port in Palangkaraya, more floating hotels and extensive marketing overseas.

"Gaye and I have gone beyond just oohing and aahing and thinking how great it would be to open up the Kalimantan environment to others," Lorna said.

"We're now up to our necks in a venture that's driven by our vision to protect Kalteng's unique forests and create new sources of income for the local jungle-dwelling communities."

Up to their necks? An outside observer might think this a defective metaphor. Add the crocodiles of business envy, the leaches of bureaucratic interference, the everyday hazards of remote-area life made doubly difficult in the tropics, and the fickleness of the tourist industry - and you can see that on the Richter risk scale this show is quaking.

Lose one visitor into the swirling brown crocodilian waters or have a hard encounter with a hornbill and the word will move at warp speed through the Internet. Fun in frontierland? Sure – but only if it comes with air-conditioning and handphone access.

This is Lord Jim country, the land made famous in Joseph Conrad's classic. In the story a disgraced young seaman shrinks from society to live with the Dayaks. He helps better their lives but is killed after making a second error of judgment. (Read the book if you want to know the first.)

Fortunately neither Lorna nor Gaye are dewy-eyed business maidens. Both have sweated long enough in Indonesia to know that foreigners giving birth to a new idea won't have an easy labor, whatever soothing sounds are made by politicians who say overseas money's welcome, but won't ease the traumas of investment.

Lorna grew up in Jakarta where her father was a doctor at the British Embassy until he was kicked out of the country. Before that happened the family went sailing most weekends through the Thousand Islands just offshore of the capital – an experience that helped develop Lorna's love of adventure.

Dad was allegedly expelled for treating Indonesians and referring patients to Singapore surgeons rather than the locals. Whatever the reason it gave young Lorna insights into the way things are sometimes done in the Republic. She went on to study anthropology and work in the UK on international development programs, but was soon back in the archipelago.

In Indonesia she's been a consultant with the Australian aid agency AusAID in Aceh, and with a non-government organization (NGO) in Kalimantan on training projects and developing business enterprises.

Gaye is an Australian who formerly managed the Kalimantan Meeting Center (KMC), a three-star hotel and restaurant at Rungun Sari, about 36 kilometers north west of Palangkaraya. She now runs a foreign investment company, PT Kalimantan Tourism Development.

Both are members of the Subud community, a spiritual movement started in Java early last century. They live at Rungun Sari where a magnificent meeting hall has been built and is available to all faiths.

"My river journeys whilst working for the NGO took me to the heart of the local people's lives and their rapidly depleting forests," Lorna said.

"Rivers are still the main transport system linking remote villages, a fascinating but uncomfortable affair. This led me to think: What could be better than a boat hotel with comfortable cabins and a restaurant viewing deck to enjoy the passing, peaceful days of village and jungle life?"

Indeed. Great idea but nothing stands in isolation. The current investment buzzword is 'infrastructure' meaning roads, ports, airports, hotels and other public facilities have to be fixed first.

There aren't too many roads in Kalteng – the biggest province in Borneo at 154,000 square kilometers. However by Indonesian standards the main links are in reasonable condition.

Borneo isn't jam-packed Java: There are only 10 million in the whole Indonesian section of the island, with maybe less than 250,000 in Palangkaraya.

So the locust swarms of Hondas and Yamahas have yet to plague the highways and the air is breathable outside the smoke season when farmers fire the forests in defiance of edicts from Jakarta.

There's no international airport so connections – frequently late - have to be made through Jakarta or Surabaya. Foreigners remain a rarity – only 2,000 visited last year - and not all Palangkaraya hotels are either comfortable or welcoming to outsiders.

The plan is to run Dayak Hope from the river close to the KMC hotel while port facilities in Palangkaraya are upgraded. Then if all goes well boats two and three will be built. These will probably be custom constructed rather than converted.

The original budget of US $30,000 (Rp 280 million) for the boat alone has already doubled. Other investors have come to the rescue so the project is still afloat and heading for commercial operation in September – with a plan to break even by the second year.

Mike Johnson, a marine environmental anthropologist from East Java has been hired to advise on the work, though the design came from a French marine architect. Johnson reckons the cost of building a floating hotel from the keel up will be little more than buying and reshaping an old boat – and a lot easier.

The proposed tariff is US $469 (Rp 4.3 million) per person for a three-day all-found river trip. The partners reckon this will attract a market between backpackers who'll rough it anywhere, and the top-end tourists who want five star toilets.

Lorna put together a business plan entered it in an international competition and won a useful €6,000 (Rp 74 million) for her proposal. Through this she met Dutch travel agents interested in supplying management skills, clients and maybe investment.

"Our first planned tours will be along the Katingan River into the newly established Sebangau National Park, one of the last surviving peat swamp forests in Kalimantan and home to the largest known remaining orangutan populations in the world," she said.

"Unfortunately illegal logging and forest fires continue to threaten the survival of the park.

"Our overall aim is to promote eco-tourism in Kalteng as a viable way of protecting the forest and promoting the welfare of local communities through creating an effective strategy for economic growth.

"We'll provide 25 per cent of our boat tour profits to finance village eco-tourism and conservation programs using micro-finance loans to establish home-stays and train guides.

"The communities depend on the natural resources for their livelihoods. When use is sustainable the balance in the ecosystem is maintained. But where income is low the local people are forced to exploit.

"Poverty is a large threat to biodiversity. To conserve nature it's important to deal with poverty alleviation.

"We believe that our boat will be the vehicle to develop a social enterprise that can make a real difference."

(Sidebar One)


Indonesia's first president Soekarno had many grand plans; among them was to relocate the capital to Central Kalimantan.

The idea got shelved, the Big Durian continued to expand and choke, and Palangkaraya has retained some sanity. There's certainly plenty of room and the city has spread itself out comfortably.

There's the usual collection of concrete statues in the Soviet realism style that are supposed to encourage civic pride and individual endeavor, along with government signs telling people to speak Indonesian. But the interesting area is the river.

Palangkaraya ('sacred place') was originally called Pahandut. Many prefer houses on the river. Here the kids rapidly learn how important water is in their lives, for food, transport, bathing and recreation.

Most landmarks named by the Dutch have been relabeled since the Revolution. An exception is the Schwaner Range, commemorating the 19th century geologist who explored the area.

This is the main watershed in the north of the province, but by the time the rivers reach the south they've widened and calmed, making them ideal transport routes.

And not just for normal trade. The waterways give access to the remote areas where the big trees have been felled in thousands, earning Indonesia an unwanted place in the Guinness Book of Records for allowing massive deforestation.

Apart from eco-tourism the other hope for Kalteng is mining. Mining companies Kalimantan Gold and Oxiana Resources are drilling to try and prove claims of a major copper ore deposit in the mountains.

(Sidebar 2)


The forests of Kalimantan may be over exploited, but eco-tourism is massively under-developed according to research by Lorna Dowson-Collins.

Malaysia now gets ten per cent of its tourism revenue from folk in floppy hats and non-designer baggy shorts - Indonesia around five per cent. Sabah alone attracts 1.7 million visitors a year.

Those who reckon slapping on mosquito repellant is a great way to pass time are generally members of the so-called 'Silent Generation', couples whose kids have long flown the nest.

In the West professionals from this 55-plus age group are usually well-heeled, want to stay active and have no interest in hedonism and shopping malls.

Then there's the Baby Boomers, a generation younger and equally keen to get their feet wet. They also have purpose in pleasure bringing the kids along because travel is educational.

It's a market has yet to get serious attention from Indonesian tourism authorities.

(First published in The Sunday Post 20 May 2007)


Saturday, May 12, 2007


LET ME TELL YOU A FUNNY STORY … © Duncan Graham 2007

For several months every year a Hollywood stage and screen actor lives comfortably in the wilds of Kalimantan, where he was found by Duncan Graham:

Like many of his countryfolk, Irish-born knockabout Redmond Gleeson migrated to America in search of the promised land. He particularly wanted to be a professional actor so inevitably headed for Hollywood – one more hopeful in the queue of thousands.

Getting among the stars requires a certain amount of truth bending. So when an agent offered a part for an experienced horseman the ambitious silver-tongue rapidly glossed over his inadequacies.

"I'd never ridden before in my life," Redmond confessed, "but I wasn't going to let on. Once on the set a nasty wrangler spotted my uncertainty and whacked the huge horse as soon as I mounted. It went galloping over a hill towards the camera while I hung on for dear life – totally terrified.

"The director said I was riding badly and the shot was unusable. I told him that I was playing an Irish character and that was the way the Irish rode. He accepted that and I got to keep the part."

Now 72 Redmond is still busy with theatre, television and films for character roles have no age limits. His latest, a goreflick called The Tripper where he plays the father of an axe murderer who wears a Ronald Reagan mask should be hemorrhaging in Indonesian cinemas later this year.

When he's not on the stage or the set Redmond is in the heart of Central Kalimantan, the province known as Kalteng. Here he rests between engagements in a neat timber house with his wife Mardiah – mother of the couple's ten children.

They live at the Subud community (see sidebar) in the rain forest, 36 kilometers outside the provincial capital Palangkaraya and close to the wide brown Rungan River.

However as you read this he'll be back in Los Angeles rehearsing for his 23rd performance, production and direction of Bloomsday on 16 June. This is a celebration of James Joyce's Ulysses featuring a day in the life of the everyman hero Leopold Bloom.

Regarded by many literary critics as the most important novelist of the early 20th century, Joyce invented the 'stream of consciousness' style that revolutionized English prose.

How the Irish flag, sodden with rain, limp in the Gleeson garden just two degrees below the equator got to be in Indonesia is a long yarn with many sidetracks. Most are prefaced with the evergreen Gaelic line: "Let me tell you a funny story …"

Redmond's background is no rerun of Frank McCourt's, the teacher who was born on the wrong side of the tracks, went to the US and told all in the Pulitzer Prize-winner Angela's Ashes. Martin Gleeson (as he was before film-fame) came from an educated and professional family in Dublin.

He migrated to Australia and was only rescued from a life of playing rugby and drinking beer (his words) by a scholarship to a university in Ohio where he studied theatre arts.

After graduating Redmond worked on the ski fields of Aspen in Colorado that became a haven for alternative lifestylers and where he met Mardiah, an artist. He acted with the High Country Players, dishwashing and doing whatever made a buck. A self-confessed ski-bum.

As a kid in Dublin he'd been inspired by two icons - the wonder of James Joyce's language, and American cinema. He clearly recalls watching his hero, burly Burt Lancaster canter across the silver screen. "If only … ," the little fellow dreamed while slumped in the stalls.

Once in Hollywood, using his magic mix of blarney, talent and determination, plus hard work and creating his own opportunities, Redmond eventually found himself acting alongside Lancaster and teaching him Irish accents.

"I was lucky. Burt, God rest him, (he died in 1994) liked the Irish - and at that time being Irish didn't hurt a bit," Redmond said. "Yes - it's an 'Only in America' story. The US has been good to me, but I still keep my Irish citizenship.

"Of course the entertainment industry is littered with burn-outs and drop-outs. Staying the distance requires an ability to control the rat in the skull and having no fear of rejection. You have to be a hustler."

It also requires serious talent in many disciplines – acting, singing, dancing, writing, producing and directing. Doing nothing while waiting for a call from a casting agent can be a sure way to drown in the Johnnie Walker lake for all but the most wanted and adaptable.

"You have to do everything, particularly if you want to avoid being typecast," he said. "I was a Beatnik and a Hippy. In the 1960s we drove a Kombi van from Switzerland to India.

"Along the way we discovered Subud. Mardiah and I first came to Indonesian in 1971 (for a Subud convention), but we didn't decide to buy a house here till three years ago. It's a lovely place to relax and enjoy life.

"It took me eight years to break through in Hollywood. I was groping around trying to figure out where the path was to the big time. Connections are everything."

Film is fun and pays well, but the real magic can be found only in theatre where Redmond has won two awards. He formed a company, Ray of Light Productions and co-wrote an adaptation of Bloomsday with poet Tom Kerrigan. What started as a labor love has become popular beyond the dreams of any Paddywhacker.

It's not just a hit with the maudlin masses who embrace shamrockery, crying into their black Guinness, but also the new generations of arts students who wouldn't otherwise know a limerick from Limerick, but find Joyce on their syllabi.

So if you happen to be in LA next month, make a brisk beeline to Molly Malone's Irish Pub where for around US $15 (Rp 150,000) you'll get a feed of cockles and mussels and hear some fine Joyce readings including the most famous line of all – Molly Bloom's absolute submission - 'yes I said yes I will Yes'.

Just say you're also a long way from the Emerald Isles (the ones in the Southern Hemisphere) and you'll get a warm welcome. To be sure, to be sure.



Subud was started in the 1920 by a Javanese Muslim seer, Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo. It claims to be an awakening of the inner self, a spiritual movement and not a religion.

People of all religions and no religions are said to be followers. The principal spiritual exercise is called latihan, an Indonesian word for training.

The name Subud has been distilled from the Sanskrit words Susila (morality) Budhi (reason) and Dharma (duty). Subud followers define the name as 'the possibility for human beings to follow the right way of living'.

In the 1950s and 60s Subud became popular in the West, particularly among intellectuals. However there are said to be less than 15,000 followers worldwide.

In most cities supporters live in their own homes and get together at a center. But in Kalteng they've built a community on leased land and are involved in several local activities.

Many homes are palatial, reflecting the affluence of Subud followers who are professionals and business people. However not all are permanently occupied and are used only for short periods by their overseas owners.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 12 May 07)


Tuesday, May 08, 2007



The range is vast. The designs are intriguing and enigmatic, deceptively plain and cunningly complex, mysterious and multicolored; some are smoldering, earthy and raw, others are jolly, bright and glossy, enhanced by threads of gold and silver.

Just like Indonesia.

The symbols of other countries tend to be landmarks; the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Sydney Opera House. Not all are human constructions. Canada has the maple leaf and Lebanon the green cedar, but only Indonesia has ikat.

This is the textile made from pre-dyed threads woven to ancient patterns remembered and passed down through the generations. Like Scottish tartans each one belongs to a specific community.

That exclusivity is waning for the Koreans, Japanese and Chinese are already producing cloth using precious Indonesian motifs that no one in the Republic has bothered to register.

So consumer beware; you may think you're buying hand-made craftwork from a hillside hamlet in the hinterlands of Java where gnarled fingers lovingly teased thread into loom. But the chances are growing that your purchase came from a computer-controlled production line mill in smog-filled Shanghai.

Along with the characters of the wayang kulit puppets there are probably no other symbols or patterns that so clearly belong to the archipelago as the designs of Indonesian textiles.

Weaving is believed to have originated in Egypt. The technique moved to India and China through trade. It probably arrived here from Vietnam about 3,000 years ago, along with the secrets of wet-rice cultivation.

At first the products were crude. Necessarily so because the materials used were bark and fronds. When cotton became commonplace the techniques could be refined.

Then ikat – and to a lesser extent batik - spread. There are now at least 6,000 distinctively different designs across the 17,000 islands, ranging from the abstract to the realistic, and no one person would know all.

However art and design lecturer Arma Subijanto from Jakarta's Trisakti University proved herself adept at identifying most when challenged by The Jakarta Post.

Confronted with a sea of sarongs, shawls and accessories draped on tables and sideboards for an exhibition at Malang's Tugu Hotel, she was able to accurately pick the provenance of almost all without peeping at the labels.

"I feel passionately about ikat and the designs that we've developed over the centuries," she said. "In the pre-Islamic era when animism was common women used to pray to the gods as they made the cloth. So they saw the inspiration for the designs as sacred.

"This is our heritage, our culture, our contact with our ancestors. Ikat unifies the nation. But sadly it's seen by many as old fashioned.

"The history of many textiles and designs are related to royalty so could only be worn at special events or by particular people, like pregnant women. Even today batik tends to be reserved for formal occasions, though former president Soeharto made it mandatory for public servants to wear batik on Fridays.

"That may have helped the clothing industry but it was just a gesture. It did nothing to help understand the culture. The challenge is to make it relevant to the present."

How anyone could think traditional Javanese wear frumpy is beyond this furtive fashion observer. Because sarongs haven't been cut to fit they tend to emphasize the bottom, an effect enhanced by high heels.

They also hobble, making steps shorter and movements more pronounced and provocative, as every woman knows well. No need to look at slinky Western gear where brevity rules – Javanese costumes hide almost everything, but they reveal much more to the imagination.

Even if you're not prepared to wear Indonesian textiles they make brilliant wall-hangings, bed and cushion covers, tablecloths and curtains.

By Western standards the cost of hand-made products is low. Even in up-market shops outside Jakarta a splendid sarong can still be bought for less than Rp 180,000 (US $20) meaning the lady at the loom would probably get only a quarter of that amount. Machine-made textiles can be bought for even less.

As she opened and folded the lovely linens Arma identified flawed labels. A textile from Lombok may have been bought there but the design was from much further east on the island of Timor.

She can also tell in a flash whether the dyes used are natural and made from plants and earths, or chemicals. (Hint: Natural dyes tend to have a matt finish.)

Arma said factories in industrial towns like Gresik (East Java) are making textiles using motifs from Sumbawa then being sent to West Java for sale.

Patterns that appear to be abstract and minimalist are often symbols of people and natural objects that – like Chinese calligraphy – have been reduced to an outline. Other designs from East Nusa Tenggara are more naturalistic, showing deer and horses.

A few have lettering, a style introduced during the Dutch era. Chinese and Indian influences can also be found in ikat from Sumatra. Designs from the Toraja in Sulawesi show their distinctive high-roof houses. Only in Flores is the designer also the weaver; in other regions the tasks are separate.

One way to preserve the designs and textiles is to use them in modern clothes, and not confine them to sarongs and kebaya (tight-fitting blouses) only to be used at weddings. That's already being done by Malang's Rien Bambang Guritno, a textile collector who promotes Indonesian designs through displays like the one at the Tugu Hotel.

She's using ancient patterns on casual wear together with semi-formal outfits that any smart woman would be happy to wear in public.

"So many people are trying to forget the past," Rien said. "We have a culturally rich country. Our crafts unite us. We should be teaching these to our children during their school holidays, not just let them do nothing.

"There's a view that Indonesian textiles are heavy, hot and difficult to maintain. That's not correct. Many are lightweight.

"Malang is known as an educational town. (It has more than 30 universities). I also want it to be internationally recognized as a city of culture.

"I've found in my travels abroad that there's more interest in Indonesian textiles overseas than in this country."

Her friend, Jakarta-based interior designer Sri Sapti who has spent many years in Europe agreed. "There are books about ikat, but they're not easy to find," she said. One of the sources she carries is an out-of-print text in English, more than 20 years old.

"The message we want to put overseas is that Indonesia is much more than Bali."


Ikat has many meanings including influence, association and bonding. Here it's the term for textiles where the threads have been dyed before being woven.

Double ikat has the threads dyed on both the warp (the long threads on the loom) and the weft (the shorter threads that cross the warp).

Batik is created by applying lines of molten wax to cloth. The wax cools and then resists the dyes. When the cloth dries the wax is boiled off but the dyes remain in the unprotected areas.

Songket refers to the inclusion of silver and gold threads. Originally reserved for royalty, these textiles are now popular in Bali.

The National Gallery of Australia claims to have one of the 'richest public collections of Indonesian textiles in the world' with more than 1,200 items. Many examples are on the Internet. Check

First published in The Jakarta Post 8 May 07)



Wednesday, May 02, 2007



There are really only a couple of ways that an aged Caucasian with a frisky young Indonesian partner can handle critical public opinion.

Either they never go out together, denying both the chance to show off trophies, or they tackle the issue up front with humor and frankness.

Sheldon and Yuyun Archer favor the second approach, as Duncan Graham discovered in Probolinggo, East Java:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Dylan Thomas

"They'd call me a dirty old man back in my hometown Sheffield," said pensioner and former military pilot Sheldon Archer. "I could never have got married to someone like Yuyun if I was still in England. Here there are no problems."

Or if there are he's not aware of them, for the Javanese tend to be polite to your face if not to your back. But he does know what's going through the minds of other bule (foreigners) who see the mixed-culture couple as they get out and about in the north-coast port where they've become mildly famous.

For Yuyun is 23 and Sheldon is 72. To save you the job of scrabbling for the calculator, that's almost half a century of difference.

"I married a child," said Sheldon. He said he hasn't been wed before, but has had other partners. He also has a daughter in the US; Yuyun has inherited a stepchild two years older than herself.

"This is keeping me young. I've always been associated with beautiful women and this is the best relationship I've ever had.

"Let's face it; every middle-aged man has a fantasy of making it with a young girl – just ask Bill Clinton. Here in Indonesia fantasy can become fact."

At this stage it's important to report that Sheldon's comments were made in front of his wife who handles English well. His hearing was damaged through military service and he's having problems learning Indonesian.

More robust remarks, prefaced by "man-to-man" will not find their way into this family newspaper, but I guarantee they only endorse and underline the above quotes.

And what does Yuyun say about her husband of three years? All the right things a bloke who's not going gentle into that last goodnight loves to hear: "He is so romantic and attentive," she said. "He's a nice man and I love him. Every day he tells me that he's lucky to have me."

The couple says they're having so much fun in and out of the bedroom that they want to share their good fortune. So they've started an Internet dating agency called An Asian Wife. The come-on is direct:

Would you like a wife who never complains, nags or refuses sex? One who devotes her life to making you happy … who will love you as a person and not as a meal ticket?

At one stage they had almost 300 "real, unspoilt Indonesian girls from villages" on their books, but that number has been slimmed down to about 60 who are "serious and available."

For US 20 (Rp 180,000) the lonely suitor can buy a contact for the lass of his choice – then it's up to him to get in touch and follow through. But communication is a big problem.

While the lusty lads in bleak Birmingham (Alabama or West Midlands) can broadband their ethernet billet-doux, the olive-skinned ladies in waiting have no easy access to the Internet. Probolinggo connections can be measured in minibytes.

So it's not surprising not one of these contacts has resulted in marriage. More successful (15 weddings so far) have been the tours Sheldon and Yuyun organize for amorous adventurers with time and cash.

For about US $1,500 (Rp 14 million) the couple will pick up the wife-seeker at Surabaya's airport and escort him to the lady's home. This is usually mum and dad's abode, so kampong reality soon crushes expectations of 24-hour workouts alone in penthouse suites.

If she looks as lovely on the carpet of her cramped lounge as she did on the laptop and the emotional electrons are stimulated, then the rest is up to them.

If not Yuyun will schedule other introductions until Ms Willing meets Mr Right. The price includes hotel or homestay accommodation and romantic trips for up to a fortnight.

The couple said the men they've squired so far have been in their 40s and 50s from the US and UK, usually refugees from a broken marriage, escapees from feminism and enticed by the exotic.

Many have been anxious about traveling to Indonesia fearing terrorists and were "astonished at the differences from their negative expectations".

"Age gaps aren't an issue in Indonesia," said Sheldon. "The people here are really friendly and hospitable. There are bad things about Indonesia, like pollution and lousy service, but the good outweigh.
"I no longer enjoy Britain – it's like a police society. I can't even get a visa for Yuyun so she can meet my relatives and see the country. We don't want to live there.
"Here there are no speed cameras, no parking restrictions, no surveillance, no income tax, no VAT. To open a business you find some premises and go licenses, no fire inspections.
"No political correctness, no lawsuits, no compulsory insurance, no fishing or television licensing. Here I bought a house for US $6000 (Rp 55 million). You couldn't get a garden shed for that in England.
"Western women are disgusting. They are selfish, egotistical and money oriented. If you don't have tons of cash they're just not interested.

"Here I've never met a real bitch. Indonesian women list being faithful at the top of their requirements in a man. There's a bit of hero worship. They like white skin."

And credit cards of whatever hue? Aren't many bule chasers just gold-diggers?

"Some are – though I can think of only two in this category that we've had on our books. Women in Thailand and the Philippines want a foreign husband so they can flee the country – then kick him out. Indonesian women aren't like that – they prefer to stay near their families."

A local proverb says when a woman marries a foreigner she just gets the guy – but he gets her and her family.

"That can be true. Yuyun moved her parents into our house after we got married without my knowledge. I don't mind. There are many family obligations in this culture."

How did you meet Yuyun?

"An Indonesian friend I knew overseas brought me here and introduced me to many families. He said I'd never want to leave – he was right! I was accosted by so many women I was in heaven. They treated me like Beckham! They are so sensual.

"Yuyun is never unhappy, never miserable. She's so bubbly and easy to get on with. How could I not love her? It never entered my mind that we'd get married – but Indonesian women make decisions fast about their future."

(Yuyun: "I only agreed when I knew he was serious and when he kept his promises.")

"Indonesian women don't talk openly about sex and it was hands off before marriage. But when they love there are no half measures. Westerners think they are subdued. Not so. Yuyun is a real sexpot. It's me that has to plead a headache some nights to get a rest."

What cultural hurdles have you hit? "Not many. We both share the same sense of humor. I don't mind Indonesian food. I want lots of air in the house and she doesn't. (When The SundayPost visited the fans were on in most rooms and the front door open.) Some men have problems because of the lack of alcohol here. No issue for me - I don't drink."

Religion? "I had to become a Muslim to marry. I just mumbled a few words I didn't understand. I'm not religious and Yuyun isn't serious about religion."

What happens to Yuyun when you die? "I hope that by then she'll be able to inherit my pension. I've had a heart by-pass, but I'm pretty fit. My parents lived into their 90s.

"The house and car are in her name. We're starting a business for her buying and selling cattle. She'd love kids but first I have to be sure that her future is secure."

(Srikandi is a non-profit organization in Indonesia for local women who are married – or were married – to foreigners. See


There's no shortage of famous couples with significant age differences. Unsurprisingly it's usually older man – younger woman, though film star Joan Collins settled for a toyboy 32 years her junior.

Currently Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills (25 years) are getting the headlines as they divorce. They've eclipsed Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas who also have a quarter-century gap.

In business media tycoon Rupert Murdoch's third wife Wendi Deng is 38 years his junior. The press baron has proved his potency by fathering two children with the former Deng Wen Di

The most famous has to be the megabust Anna Nicole Smith and megabucks J Howard Marshall II. Both are now most certainly distant, but before they died they were 63 years apart.

(First published in the Sunday Post 29 April 07)



Next Saturday (21 April) is Kartini Day, celebrating the birthday and brief life of highborn Javanese emancipationist Raden Ayu Kartini who died in 1904 aged 25. How have things changed in the past century? Duncan Graham reports from East Java:


'Women are too emotional. They are not prepared to take risks. They easily forgive - and easily forget. Overall they are too unstable and therefore unfit to lead'.

A scathing assessment of more than half the population of a nation whose fifth president was a woman – a goal yet to be reached in the US.

You might think those who hold such opinions would be unreconstructed Neanderthal knuckle-draggers out of touch with their feminine side – and the modern world.

Sadly these views were expressed by women surveyed by consultants working for the Indonesia-Australia Partnership in Basic Education program (IAPBE).

The three-year AUD $9.1 million (Rp 65 billion) project covering three regions in East Java (Jember, Jombang and Gresik) has been lifting teaching and education administration skills through 'train-the-trainer' workshops.

The genesis for the project is the 2003 Education Act. This promoted a competency-based curriculum, and community involvement in school management decisions.

Progressive moves – but they've come with decentralization of power; this has left many regional public servants confused about what they should be doing and how.

If you've been a bureaucrat unquestionably carrying out orders made in Jakarta for more than 30 years and never had to think, suddenly being cloaked with the authority to do the job yourself can be a bit of a shock.

This social earthquake is also shaking up parents. Being asked for your input in running the school might sound like democracy in action, but for many young Mums standing up in a meeting and giving the old blokes at the top an earful takes great courage.

As with most overseas aid programs the IAPBE includes raising gender awareness and equality. In the West this is no longer a big deal because society has widely accepted the principles, even if they're not always applied. (For proof of this observation, check the age and gender of big Australian company boards.)
But in Indonesia gender equality doesn't have a well-cured concrete foundation.

To help get the message across Alfianda Mariawati and her colleagues at the IAPBE have produced a set of five big glossy handbooks on how to implement and manage gender inclusive teaching and workplace equality.

This is another of the fancy terms that proliferate in modern education policy, leaving the average parent nonplussed. Even more so when there are no equivalent words in Indonesian – a point flung at Alfianda by some critics.

They claim the lack of language proves there's no problem in Indonesia. Women being barred from promotion, getting lower wages than men and denied access to some jobs just because they have different genitalia is the way things are done in the archipelago.

The other shaft is that making the sexes equal in the home and workplace is a Western ideal that has no place in Indonesian culture and religion. Real men don't change nappies, and only wimps wash dishes.

"Not so," said Alfianda, a former non-government agency activist. Her photographer spouse is a househusband caring for the couple's new baby boy while Mum is at work. Dad apparently looks cute wearing a selendang (the traditional child-carrying sling worn diagonally across the body). But not all the muttering mothers in the kampong smile and nod, proof that gender stereotypes die hard.

"The principles of Islam are that men and women have the right to achieve their potential as human beings," Alfianda said.

"Islam clearly promotes justice and equality for men and women – a point we've made in the handbooks. To improve the welfare of the family women should be smart and well educated – that's an argument with wide appeal.

"Then look at the job facts: The ratio of women to men is two to one in the classrooms but the other way round in education administration.

"Women are better qualified – 63 per cent of teachers with S 1 (bachelor's degree) are women – but only 31 per cent of women are principals.

"When we show such statistics in workshops there's a clearer understanding."

"Gender equality is also part of Indonesian law," said Jakarta-based consultant Leya Cattleya. She used to work for the State Ministry of Women's Empowerment, a department established during the presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid.

"The policy grew from the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (popularly known as the Women's Bill of Rights) that's been signed by the Indonesian government.

"Gender equality is necessary to improve the delivery of government services to the people."

Commented IAPBE Australian team leader Barry Clark: "This isn't about religion or culture. It's about education and efficiency.

"It's not our job to influence policy in Indonesia or interfere in any way. Our task is to help Indonesian teachers deliver the curriculum more effectively and assist administrators do their job better."

Clark is a well-seasoned educator and veteran of the 1970s sex wars in Australia. He knows why some men will use any excuse – including a lack of segregated toilets and an inability to concentrate on the job in the presence of females– to avoid change. "They see women as a threat," he said bluntly.

Passing a law in Jakarta is one thing – it's quite another to get it accepted and implemented down the line. Officials at the lower levels of government, particularly in distant provinces, don't always accept national edicts with good grace.

Imagine getting an instruction from above to promote women and meeting outrage in an office where men rule. For a quiet life such orders are best left in the pending tray. Apart from the usual excuse of overwork, resistance can be rationalized by pleading the preservation of cultural practices that cement male power into the brickwork of society.

This is where the handbooks become useful because they spell out in detail the ways gender equality can be implemented. Perhaps in too much detail for use outside an intensive and well-planned meeting.

One of the simplest and most effective techniques is to ensure teachers encourage questions and comments from girls. Boys tend to dominate classroom behavior in many cultures and smart teachers will ensure everyone gets a fair go.

There are useful case studies to promote discussion (wife on a higher salary works as a teacher while hubby is a driver and often away from home), questionnaires and some simple pictures to relieve the text-dense handbooks. But overall they look heavy going and the drawings lack credibility because they don't match the quality found in comics.

Leya, who has been involved in gender issues and women's empowerment for more than 20 years, has been hired by the IAPBE to review the handbooks and recommend changes. These will be based on the way the books have been received and used by workshop participants.

Some of the criticisms have been revealing. Consider the reaction to the picture on this page. The text bubbles include comments about the man getting more money and status than the woman even though they have the same education.

But some users were less interested in the message than the drawing that shows a man and woman alone. "She should not be seen talking to a man like that in public," said some. "She should be accompanied by other women, friends or relatives."

Others feared that teaching boys to dance and design batik might make them effeminate.

A VCD is being planned as another tool to help get the messages across. Although the project is due to close at the end of June, revised materials should be ready before the money tap gets turned off.

Then it will be up to the hundreds of teachers and administrators - men and women - who've been trained by the IAPBE project to keep Kartini's message from the 19th century alive: Equality benefits all.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 23 April 07)




Henri Supriyanto is lucky to have escaped jail when a young man.

Not because he was a thief, killer or corruptor. He's a man of culture, not criminal intent.

Back in 1965 when he was 22, a failed coup d'etat allegedly engineered by communists resulted in the installation of General Soeharto as head of government. Tense times; anyone who might have been remotely associated with dissent that could be labeled communist was open to arrest.

Henri's crime was to be involved with ludruk, the East Javanese improvised theatre of, for and by the people that offered raw social comment disguised as comedy.

Henri escaped the military crackdown. He thinks this was because he's a Catholic and the church was considered firmly anti-communist.

In the pre-TV days ludruk was enormously popular. According to one researcher, before the coup there were 40 times more dramatic groups in Java than in the US.

First president Soekarno was a fan and reportedly hosted 17 performances at his Bogor palace. But Soeharto's New Order government was intolerant of criticism. At first ludruk was controlled, then suppressed.

Those who survived the censors are now trying to make a comeback. Henri, a lecturer in culture and art at UNESA, the State University of Surabaya, together with other lovers of ludruk have set up a cultural center and 3,000 book library in the village of Mangliawan Pakis outside Malang.

Pictures of a determined Soekarno in full rhetorical flight stare down from the walls. There are no portraits of his successor – but why bother? Henri looks a lot like the Republic's second president in his younger days – an observation neither man would find pleasing.

Why wasn't the center established at a university where all could get easy access? "There's no love of culture on campus," Henri said. "And we haven't received any government money; they don't like culture either.

"Ludruk is the theatre of the poor. It's a political movement. Students and academics are now only interested in status and money. They think I'm crazy because I don't have a car. I use my money to buy books."

But today's uni students are from a generation with no personal experience of life before television. Easier to express yourself to a wider audience in an Internet chat-room than staying up half the night in a fug of kretek (clove cigarette) smoke trying to decode ludruk.

Early next month in Malang some of the 15 troupes in the region will be performing stories based on the Lapindo mud volcano saga that has flooded villages, farms and factories at Sidoarjo, displacing more than 15,000 people.

The shows are likely to be scathing, even rude, for ludruk is grassroots protest theatre featuring clowns and transvestites. In the words of one academic ludruk 'amplifies and highlights issues of social importance drawn from everyday life.'

Henri has an important university position and knows all the Western theories of social communication and economics. He can talk about the 'proletariat' and 'hegemony' without batting a left eyelid, unconcerned that in the West these words have passed their use-by date.

He's also written scholarly books on ludruk. But his interest is more than academic.

"I came from a poor farming family with twelve children," he said. "As an 11-year old I used to go to ludruk performances to sell snacks.

"When all the food had gone I stayed to watch. Shows could run for up to eight hours. I noticed these were community events where people used the opportunity to get out of their houses and mix with neighbors.

"At the same time the performances gave people the chance to express themselves and their common concerns. The dialogue was two-way, unlike television which is unidirectional, from the top down and straight into the home where it's watched in private."

Ludruk never entirely died during the Soeharto era but retreated to distant villages. Its messages of social concern and criticism of authority were heavily muted. Bureaucrats tried to use it for government directives on development. When that didn't work television was employed using the Palapa satellite that could reach every nook of the archipelago with propaganda from Jakarta.

Henri put himself through university by selling newspapers and working as a reporter. Later he became a lecturer and, of course, a ludruk performer. The Latin motto ora et labora (pray and work) hammered home during his Catholic schooldays became his personal philosophy.

"I was never afraid to work hard," he said. "No, I wasn't a communist. I was and am a nationalist.

"I came from a farming background, though my father didn't own land. I realized that being a farmer was very difficult and I had to make my own way.

"I've never forgotten my roots. I've always been on the side of the little people and supported their struggle. There is still a longing for ludruk in the villages. It creates togetherness.

"I'm very proud of our local culture and believe it should be exported. We are losing out in the race to be educated and knowledgeable to the Japanese and Koreans because we are not reading and learning and doing."



If you're a foreigner keen to see a performance of ludruk, best go along with a knowledgeable local, preferably someone from East Java.

Being fluent in formal Indonesian will be of little help for performances are usually in a mix of low Javanese, Madurese and slang.

You'll also need a broad mind and be aware of the complex and suggestive metaphors used. For example, comments about the narrow leaves from a particular tree are references to young women because they're shaped like female genitalia.

Ludruk is ironic and iconoclastic, a useful social release in a society where leaders are supposed to be revered and disruptive comment has to be suppressed. However the clown character can say the outrageous things people are thinking because he's not held responsible for his comments.

In the past village shows ran all night. Now performers are aware that attention spans of modern audiences are limited so the plays are often contracted to one or two hours.

All parts used to be played by men, but women are now involved, sometimes taking male roles with penciled-in moustaches.

Many authorities claim ludruk started in the 1920s and was linked to the revolutionary movement. The Dutch authorities gave it little attention, probably because they couldn't understand what was going on and we more concerned with written forms of dissent.

Others believe ludruk goes back to the strolling players of the Majapahit era 700 years ago, and developed in the triangle between Surabaya, Malang and Jombang.

Henri thinks it originated in this fertile agricultural zone because there was no keraton (palace) culture to influence theatre and impose a hierarchy as in Yogya (Central Java).

(First published in The Jakarta Post 23 April 07)