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

Saturday, November 23, 2013


Killing the messenger                              

One afternoon in Surabaya during the tension leading to the 1999 referendum on the future of East Timor, our landlord took me to a meeting with the Rukun Tetangga.

Although the term means neighborhood harmony, officially the RT is the local community leader.

“It’s just a courtesy call to let him know new people have moved in,” our lessor explained as we walked to the appointment.

“I’ve already told him you’re a New Zealander.  I don’t think it would be good if people know there’s an Australian in the kampong.”

The years roll on but tensions persist. Today Australians registered with the Jakarta Embassy got an automated e-mail urging a ‘high degree of caution’ because of possible civil unrest.

This follows revelations that our government has long spied on its northern neighbor and supposed friend, impertinently tapping the phones of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife, Ibu Ani.

Seasoned diplomats claim such behavior is commonplace. So do the Australians eavesdrop US President Barack Obama’s cellphone and intercept intimate messages from his wife Michelle?  Or those of UK Prime Minister David Cameron and his spouse Samantha?

Should Edward Snowden, the US whistleblower (or traitor, depending on your viewpoint) reveal such snooping, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s response might be more humble than his reactions so far to President SBY’s anger.

In Parliament Mr Abbott said he wanted to express “my deep and sincere regret about the embarrassment to the President and to Indonesia that's been caused by recent media reporting.”

An apology for spying?  Not at all.  It’s all the media’s fault reporting the espionage, so shoot the messenger. In this case it was The Guardian newspaper and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster.
Managing director Mark Scott was forced to defend the decision to publish papers marked TOP SECRET.  He told a Senate committee that although he knew the news was embarrassing to the government, the relevant test was whether releasing the material was in the public interest.
According to news reports Mr Scott ‘drew a distinction between the national interest and the public interest’ – the fine line walked by all journalists.


While others were handling the controversy with tweezers, journalist and academic Dr Philip Dorling (a visiting fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy) grasped the issue firmly: 

‘Why do we do it?’ he wrote. ‘Behind all the declarations of friendship and good neighborliness by successive Australian governments, Canberra just doesn't trust Jakarta. We work closely with Indonesia, including in the fields of security and intelligence, but we don't trust them. We never have, and probably never will.’

His comments are well grounded. A 2012 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade survey of Australians’ attitudes showed knowledge of Indonesia to be poor and perceptions mixed.  Almost half the respondents rated Indonesia ‘a threat to Australian national security’.

Scrutiny of the results show the distrust was rooted last century when Indonesian paramilitaries, allegedly sponsored by the army, laid East Timor waste after the referendum rejected Indonesian rule.

Since then the Bali and Jakarta bombs have fertilized the distrust.  Hundreds of thousands fly into Kuta every year, but few venture into Java, a land of mystery and Islam, regretfully still considered a synonym for terrorism.

More recently the Indonesian government’s inability (or reluctance) to stop its own citizens using Indonesian-flagged boats to ferry asylum seekers to Australia is a toxin that poisons attitudes.

Few Indonesians understand how the bombings continue to resonate in Australia, just as Australians don’t appreciate the sensitivity of Indonesians towards real or imagined colonial attitudes.  It takes more than 68 years of hard-won independence to wash away three centuries of rule by smug white-skinned foreigners.

Abbott and his ministerial colleagues may profess undying love for Indonesia (the President is “a very good friend… one of the very best friends”), but they’re occasional suitors living far away in Canberra, making only fleeting visits and not recipients of today’s travel warnings. 

If this is how Australia treats best friends, thank goodness we’re not enemies.

The thousands of low-profile Australians who work and live in Indonesia, quietly trying to eradicate misunderstandings and put substance into the leaders’ rhetoric, now have to cope with the fallout.

Military cooperation has already been ditched. Other agreements, treaties and projects like the splendid BRIDGE student exchange programs may survive, but they’ll be considered suspect. 

The AUD $542 million (Rp 5.8 billion) aid program has benefited thousands, particularly schoolchildren in remote areas, but all that goodwill is rapidly evaporating.

Political scientists yawningly note that all nations spy on each other and this is widely known.  International relations are always a roller-coaster ride – so what’s new?

Known by insiders, maybe, but not the general population.  We may have wondered, but we didn’t know for certain.

What’s new is that doubts have hardened into fact. The suspicious can no longer be dismissed as crazed conspiracy theorists.

Inevitably some superficial relationship will return as time heals.  We can betray and threaten and fear, but nothing is going to change one unshakeable fact.  Our countries are – and will always be – close neighbors.

We have to learn to live in harmony – we’re in the same kampong.  It’s time for some Rukun Tetangga.

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 23 November 2013)


Cooked alive


Prolonged guerrilla wars are always brutal, and the four-year fight to consolidate Indonesian independence against diehard European colonialists was particularly vile.

About 150,000 freedom fighters and civilians, and 6,000 Dutch soldiers, died in the prolonged conflict between 1945 and 1949, euphemistically labelled  ‘police actions’ by the archipelago’s former controllers.

Earlier this year the Netherlands government apologized and paid compensation to the victims’ families of a December 1947 West Java massacre when Dutch soldiers shot 431 Indonesian freedom fighters at Rawagede (now Balongsari).

However descendants of the 46 men from Bondowoso cooked to death in a railway wagon a month earlier have still to be recognized.

The issue has been raised with Professor Liesbeth Zegveld, the Dutch lawyer who drove the Rawagede compensation case.  She’s passed it on to the European Nuhanovic Foundation that specializes in war reparation cases. 

This is the story of Gerbong Maut, the Corpse Train.

According to Soetedjo, one of the survivors who gave his story to Dutch researchers, the men were prisoners who’d been arrested on suspicion of being revolutionaries.  They were scheduled to be shifted to the Kalisosok Prison in Surabaya about 250 kilometers distant, allegedly because the local gaol was overcrowded.

On the morning of Sunday 23 November 1947 one hundred men in the Bondowoso prison were woken at 5 am and marched to the railway station.  Twenty-four were stuffed into the windowless first freight wagon and 38 each in the remaining two.

The floors were of timber and the roofs of corrugated iron. There were no benches. The doors were sealed and the train got underway around 7.30 am. The day was typically scorching.

Revolutionary propaganda images show the men being brutally herded into the three boxcars.  However a photo suggests it was a relatively routine manoeuvre with the soldiers – some seemingly unarmed - appearing relaxed.

Whatever their demeanor the guards were certainly inexperienced.  At the time there were around 100,000 Dutch soldiers in Java. Many were conscripts with little heart in the job of overturning President Soekarno’s declaration of Independence.

The plan to recolonize Indonesia  was internationally unpopular and opposed by recently de-colonized India and many Western nations, including Australia.  In Holland public opinion was split on the value of trying to regain sovereignty of the East Indies.

When the train stopped at sidings along the 16 -hour journey the prisoners hammered the walls and shouted for food and water.  They were told only bullets were available and nothing would be supplied until the train reached Surabaya.

Eventually the cries became faint, but even this didn’t move the Dutch soldiers to investigate.  Sometime during the awful journey a man in the middle car using a spoon managed to scrape a hole in the planks to get more air.

During the afternoon it rained and some drops leaked into the first two cars, though not the more recently built end wagon.

That night the doors were opened. All the men in the first car were alive though some were seriously sick.  In the second car eight were dead. In the final wagon no-one had survived.

Of the 100 men only 12 were fit enough to help their mates and move the corpses. The others were taken to hospital.

“The victims were cooked, as in an oven,” recalled Soetedjo. “When we saw their bodies, their skin was off and appeared to be white. Bekas darah kelihatan keluar dari mulut dan kuping, mata dan lidah keluar, sungguh ta' dapat kita lupakan.

“There were visible traces of blood from their mouths and ears and eyes. Their tongues were out. It’s something I’ll never be able to forget. Ada jang tangannja keatas, ada jang meninggal mlungker. Begitulah, kita letakkan 46 jiwa di peron stasiun Wonokromo.We put 46 bodies on the station platform at Wonokromo.”

At the soldiers’ trial in July 1948 it was revealed that the transport arrangements had been entrusted to Arie Jippes, an inexperienced soldier in the Marine Brigade who’d never had an operational role. He was suddenly given the job, papers thrust into his hands, just as he was leaving Java at the end of his service.

Dutch author Ad van Liempt wrote that Jippes’ ‘guilt never left him .. and ruined his life’.  He was sentenced to two months in jail.  His commander was never prosecuted.

However in Pakisadji, close to Malang, three Dutch soldiers who refused to take retaliatory action against Indonesians on moral grounds were jailed for more than two years.

Six students from Petra University in Surabaya directed by graphic arts graduate Sherly Jessica have produced three You Tube videos about the tragedy.

These have helped rekindle local interest. Last year (2012) a group of students in Bondowoso re-enacted the tragedy in a bid to keep the memory of the men alive and to inaugurate Gerbong Maut Day.

Ms Jessica said her team had tried to locate the three wagons.  Remnants of one have been found in the Gedung Juang Surabaya museum scrap yard.  It hasn’t been displayed because its authenticity has been questioned. 

Another is in the Brawijaya Army Museum in Malang, and reasonably well preserved, though not treated with respect as visitors are allowed to climb over the exhibit.  This is believed to be the newest box car, so may be the one where all the men died because the planks would have made an airtight fit.

The other is missing, though there are rumors it’s in Solo. Ms Jessica said the one used for a statue in Bondowoso (described by Dutch academic Dr Gerben Nooteboom, who did field work in the area, as a ‘pathetic monument made from blackened brass’), is a replica.

“We went to Bondowoso and interviewed a few people, but they kept silent,” Ms Jessica said. “The people said it was a secret that they couldn’t tell to strangers.

“It’s my belief that there are still some untold stories, yet to be discovered regarding the wagons and their connection with the prison.

“We as the young and caring generation of Indonesia want to bring this Gerbong Maut tragedy to a whole new level.

“We want to make our own generation – and future generations to come, to know the truth and learn from it.

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 23 November 2013)

Sunday, November 17, 2013


Not spying – just a mutual awareness doctrine

Well, hi there neighbor – good to see you Mr Bambang; you’ve been away so long you must have plenty to talk about.

Maybe we could get together after Friday prayers and have a few cold ones to catch up?  No?  OK, some other time maybe.

A chat now?  Well sure, that’s fine; I’ll just tell Julie where I’ve gone so the missus doesn’t think I’m having a foreign affair!

Not funny, eh?  Sorry, but we Aussies like to share a joke or two to crack the ice. I’ll be round in a tick as soon as I’ve made a couple of calls to Canberra.

Now, what’s the problem Mr Bambang?  Our dogs barking too much?  The new satellite dish blotting out your sunlight?  Those antenna wires singing in the wind? I find them damn annoying too, as I told our community head when he complained.

Look mate, let’s keep this man-to-man.  I know there’s been a bit of tittle-tattle in the street, and to be perfectly clear the good lady wife does tend to chat a bit to the American neighbors on the other side.

She particularly likes Mrs Michelle – you know how it is with women - and maybe she passes on a thing or two to her husband when they’re talking about Syria and Iran and the price of rice.  But it’s all harmless stuff.  As you and I keep assuring the folks roundabouts, we cooperate, we’re good friends, we respect each other.

Alright Sir, calm down. Let me explain what happened – fair dinkum. That means straight up and down – no funny business. Not that we ever do.

One day the maid was polishing a wine glass which she inadvertently put against the wall and heard noises from next door.

Well, I explained how sound travels, and we all had a go – it was jolly fun really, more like a game.  And to tell the truth (as we always do) I thought this might be a handy way of protecting you by gathering information. Gotong royong and all that looking after each other stuff that you guys do so well.  Gee, I love your culture.

Look Mr Bambang, don’t get annoyed.  To be frank (as we always are) you’re off in Bali quite a bit, and there’s more than a few shady characters coming and going in your absence.  Who knows what they’re plotting behind your back?  Some of them might want to hop the fence and get into our back yard.

Calm down, no need to take umbrage. I agree that using the wine glass was a mite crude so I’ve asked our techies to  see if things can’t be improved.  I specifically told them not to drill holes in the wall, but they might have got a bit too enthusiastic.  I’ll send Greg around to clean up the mess.

I see you’re still annoyed so let’s put our cards on the table, as we always do.  We’re mates, right?  Please Sir, I’d like your confirmation.

I’ll certainly sack the maid and get rid of the wine glasses – how’s that?  Not enough? Well, I could call for a report and get a committee together to put up some recommendations. But with Christmas and the New Year and your election coming up I can’t see any reporting this side of Idul Fitri.

Can we just stop beating about the bush?  Everyone knows we listen to each other all the time – it’s impossible not to with all this megaphone diplomacy.

I bet you folks have already got my cellphone number and password, which is TRUSTUS if you’re interested.  See – we’re open and transparent. Ha, ha.

Let’s hit this thing for six.  Of course it’s not spying – these are just operational matters.  Spying wouldn’t be cricket as my cobber Marty says – an idiom picked up when doing his paper round in Australia, along with his designer stubble. 

Let’s call it for what it is – a Mutual Awareness Doctrine (MAD).  It’s in both our national interests. 

Enough robust exchange of views.  Let’s have a quiet chat off the record.  Grab a seat will you – a bit closer to the vase of flowers, thanks.  Duncan Graham

(First published in The Jakarta Post 17 November 2013)


Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Addicted to soccer   

How does a soccer administrator reconcile encouraging the young to enjoy healthy football when the sport is sponsored by companies selling beer and cigarettes?

“That’s a hard question,” admitted Fuad Ardiansyah, business director of PT Arema Indonesia, owner of Arema Malang, the runners up to Persipura Jayapura in this year’s Super League.

“The problem is that it costs about Rp 50 billion (US $4.35 million) to manage our senior team and Rp 5 billion (US $435,000) for our youth academy.

“We’ve now added a telecommunications company sponsor – there’s no difficulty there.  I don’t smoke or drink and I wouldn’t want my three sons to do so.

“But what else can we do? Apart from a ticket tax reduction we don’t get anything from the government.”

It’s a dilemma not exclusive to Indonesia. Although tobacco sponsorship of sport is banned in many countries alcohol advertising is often allowed, angering those who claim the liquor lobby is trying to conflate beer with football.

 “We don’t promote the products, just the names as part of the companies’ corporate social responsibility programs,” Fuad said. However the brands and the firms share the same name.

“Personally I’d like to see tobacco and alcohol taxes distributed to sporting groups – but that’s not possible under the present law. I hope one day we’ll be independent of tobacco sponsorship.” 

(Some Australian States have independent statutory boards that sponsor sports and arts using tobacco tax. Venues must be smoke-free and promote healthy living.).

Fuad, 37, started supporting Arema when the team was formed in 1987.  His Dad, a milk cooperative manager, saw no future in football so sent his son to get a masters degree in international marketing. 

Fuad studied in New Zealand where soccer is sidelined by rugby, but the nation leads the world in dairy production.

Back in his homeland he was in time to catch the milk wave which saw huge investments in dairy cows to satisfy an increasingly thirsty local market.

He now manages a modern milk treatment plant in Pasuruan, East Java, producing yoghurt and other dairy products rarely seen before in the Indonesian market.

That’s his afternoon job.  Other times the soccer tragic is in Arema’s Malang headquarters creating what he calls “industrial football” with wads of plans.  These include a new 60,000 seat stadium with shopping mall; the fan base has expanded and the existing two venues are too small.


“I don’t regret not becoming a soccer player,” he said. ”Now I can mix with all the greats and see them play.

“Back in the 1980s it wasn’t wise to walk the streets on the evening of a match, particularly if the home side lost.

“Supporters were just mobs – we had more than 30 gangs and there were fights every weekend.  

“We had to turn that around because sponsors don’t want to be associated with violence. We worked with the police, the army, civic leaders, district heads and the gangs. It took about ten years. 

“Arema supporters are now among the best behaved in the nation. I want our soccer to be a family sport, where women and children feel relaxed. (The term ‘Aremania’ now means a dedicated fan rather than a one-eyed thug. Malang is full of Arema kitsch – mainly featuring snarling lions.)

“We’ve got to get all clubs working together to support the national team and leave our local identities behind. Next year we’ll play in France and Britain. We want supporters to change their thinking and open their minds.”

Which is going to be difficult in a game as tribal as soccer, though Fuad said he was optimistic.  The Under 19s, that electrified Indonesia last month (Oct) by beating defending champions South Korea 3-2, included an Arema player, midfielder Dio Permana.

The win means Indonesia will enter the 47-member Asian Football Confederation 2014 season playing in Myanmar.

Arema belongs to the Pelita Jaya Cronus (PJC) consortium of clubs in Uruguay, Belgium and Australia. They are all held by the Bakrie Group linked to Golkar presidential hopeful Aburizal Bakrie.

Young blood is recruited from around the nation.  This year 1,200 applied, though only 400 were selected.  They are schooled in Malang when not practising.  The best get the chance to stay and play overseas at one of the PJC clubs.

“Soccer is a marvellous way to break down cultural and language barriers,” Fuad said.

“For my first week in NZ I wanted to go home.  Then I played soccer and the doors opened for me. I found friends. It was so much easier to adapt.”

Having controlled much of the violence the next soccer sickness to be tackled is racism.  Fuad said it remained a problem and was particularly directed at West Irian players.

The approach is to adopt FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) rules and penalize clubs that tolerate abuse. 

For years Indonesian soccer was trashed by people more concerned with cash and status than raising national pride.  Corruption was widespread. The so-called beautiful game was ugly behind the goal posts. Under the Soeharto New Order administration redundant generals were parachuted into government-funded clubs as administrators.

The sport is now kicked around by big business and politics, keen to impress the fans and get their votes. Two leagues were established – the Indonesian Super (ISL) and Indonesian Premier (IPL).

Indonesia is a nation where residents can enjoy a game right outside the own gate. Turf-denied kids practise on the street using sandals as goal posts while their mates warn of approaching traffic.

Fuad agreed the lack of facilities is kicking the sport in the shins.  Despite Indonesia’s huge population of 240 million and vast talent pool, the nation ranks 170 in the 209 countries that play.

Yet he remains upbeat: “Next year the ISL will merge with its rival the IPL, and that’s got to be good,” he said.

“I don’t believe matches are fixed. The sport is clean now. Our players are getting paid.  We’re getting there.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 11 November 2013)






Monday, November 04, 2013


Charity – or feeding thugs?
The first time I gave money to a beggar was also the last.
She was a pitiful sight, maybe three years old and hunched into the corner of the ugly overpass that links Jl Gubernur Suryo with the forecourt of Surabaya’s Tunjungan Plaza shopping mall.
She huddled on a piece of dirty cloth and just looked, a classic image of despair.  The tin in her lap was empty, and it was empty again a few moments after I’d dropped in coins.
An athletic young man sitting on the mall steps with his mates had seen the offering.  He sprinted up the stairs, took the money, and then dashed back to his vantage point, proving the warning given by locals:  Beggars are farmed by the unscrupulous – it’s a racket.
If so then the solution to the problem facing Jakarta Governor Jokowi and all other big city leaders is easy – turn off the supply. Then, under the ruthless law of the market, demand stops.
This tactic is being tried in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, a pioneer nation is supplying welfare from the cradle to the grave under the principle that none should need.  The fortunate rich get taxed and the unfortunate poor get benefits.
But even in Lambton Quay, the city’s main street of prestige shops and hotels, pedestrians steer past beggars hunkered under old coats, squatting on the sidewalk.
Proving that creative minds can exist in a bureaucracy, the arrest-and-rehabilitate approach being tried in Indonesia (never a success in countries with an abundance of  human rights lawyers),  was abandoned in favor of an Alternative Giving Fund. 
Posters urged well-wishers to stop helping individual beggars, but instead give to a fund that registered charities can access and distribute to applicants.
Donation boxes were installed near popular hobo hangouts, and a smartphone app distributed for those unable to move fingers off keyboards and into wallets.
Great idea?  The campaign cost almost NZ $40,000 (Rp 376 million) to set up.  In its first six weeks only $1,000 (Rp 9.4 million) had been raised. The beggars remained, though fewer.
An enterprising journalist wondering whether scrounging was a paying prospect disguised himself as a down-and-out and sat behind a scrawled message of misery- NO MONEY - NO HOPE. 
This took some courage as Australasian culture has devised a special slander for the English term ‘loafer’: Bludger, with a plosive B. The Indonesian word pemalas doesn’t carry the same connotations of contempt.
Nonetheless, within four hours he’d netted NZ $126.20 (Rp 1.2 million), plus enough food and drink for the day.
The basic weekly unemployment benefit for a single adult with no dependents is NZ $206 (RP 1.9 million). That’s almost Rp 8 million a month which many Indonesians would consider a handsome wage – but in costly NZ it’s the bare minimum for survival – hence the begging.
That’s the reasoning used by mendicants. The hard-hearted claim there’s work for the willing if only they’d stop smoking and boozing, have a shower and think positive.
The panhandling reporter also got advice from religious folk - who Kiwis call ‘the God Squad’, recommending their brand of faith. But reading the Holy Books for ideas isn’t helpful
The Koran urges believers to give charity so they will be rewarded, which suggests that the needy will be forever present. It’s even more depressingly explicit in the Bible, which quotes Jesus saying: ‘For ye have the poor always with you’.
Many governments, including Indonesia’s, are more optimistic. They’ve signed up to the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of eliminating extreme poverty and hunger by 2015, so clearly believe in the power of administrative action. We pray.
Since my Surabaya experience I’ve learned that though there are vile adults who exploit kids, there are also abandoned children who survive only through charity.  Separating the two is the tricky part, requiring vast resources and deep wisdom.
Maybe it’s easier just to clear the conscience by tossing a few coins in the kids’ tins, even when knowing they’ll be stolen by the thugs.  At least some of it will be used for food – the beggars have to be kept alive to keep the evil business going.  Duncan Graham

First published in The Sunday Post, 3 November 2013)


Gabriel Lerebours

The Indonesian tradition of building wooden boats will soon vanish as rising timber prices and dwindling supplies force manufacturers to seek other materials.  Many substitutes, like those derived from oil, are unrenewable.
So farewell another craft in an archipelagic nation that built its power and wealth through maritime excellence and inter-island trade?
Not if Gabriel Lerebours, a footloose young French botanist on a personal mission to save the industry can maintain his energy and determination.  His quest: Build boats with bamboo.
The plant is low cost, sustainable and fast growing. It’s used for chopsticks and high-rise scaffolding. If hungry, it can be eaten. If creative, turn it into paper. If brutal, use it to torture. That’s versatile, dong!
But it’s also rough and ugly, commonplace, splits and harbors beetles. It’s not sleek and sexy like the flash sea cruisers made from the evil composite.
“Fiberglass is really killing the know-how of Indonesian boat builders and diminishing the great diversity of craft,” said Gabriel.  “I hope we can save the skills and make the wood boat industry competitive again.”
Why bother? Gabriel’s arrival in Indonesia was fortuitous.  His original destination was the Indian subcontinent.  In another era he might have been a botanist aboard a vessel like Antoine D’Entrecasteaux’s Esperance exploring the Pacific in the 18th century.
Now 25 he’s been fascinated by nature since childhood, a member of generation green wanting to redress the damage inflicted on the planet by its elders. The son of a Paris doctor he completed masters degrees in science and business.
He could have settled into a laboratory or pursued a doctorate.  Instead he conceived of a low-cost boat made of bamboo that could be used in developing countries.  Not a raft but a five-meter long, one or two person prau (sometimes written as ‘prahu’ in English) constructed of bamboo composite, with an out-rigger and triangular sail.
Composites combine different materials for a stronger final product. Like cement, sand and water make concrete.  In boat building fiberglass has been a popular, easy-use resource.
 But it depends on oil-based resins.  Disposal is also a problem because the stuff won’t burn or decompose. Gabriel talks of graveyards in Europe, full of dead boats.
The Parisian had never been to Asia till this year, nor had he seen bamboo growing outside a botanical garden. Using crowd-funding appeals he raised 4,000 Euros (Rp 60 million) for an NGO, but says he hasn’t been able to access the money.
A sponsor who offered seven times that sum later changed his mind.
Still resolute and using his own savings he went to Bangladesh, a country with ties to French fiberglass fighters.  In 2010 another eco-idealist, Corentin de Chatelperron, 26, took six months to sail a boat partly made of jute from the Bengal Delta to France.
 In Chittagong Gabriel met the plant that he’d been courting for so long in its natural habitat.
“It was growing in a Buddhist temple yard,” he said. “I found it really surprising.  The color and the light were amazing.”
 His research showed the nation of 150 million was poor, had little timber and needed boats. But there were other facts only a personal visit could uncover.
“Bangladesh is rich in steel from breaking down old ships for scrap,” he said. “They have to import wood from Burma.  They prefer steel boats.
“The other factors were social and ethical.  Bamboo is used as shelter for the poor.  If an industry developed around bamboo for boats, people would be deprived of building materials.”
Undeterred despite three months becalmed, he went to Anji in China, the world center for bamboo products and seemingly the ideal place to build a boat. 
Within six weeks he realized his project would get smothered by mass production in a district that produces 12 million bamboo poles a year.
Still hunting for a friendly factory, and equally important, someone who’d appreciate his vision, he headed to Malaysia only to learn that most boatbuilding expertise is supplied by Indonesians.
It was time to jump a jet again, this time Singapore to meet manufacturers, though he found little interest in bio-composites.
Using the Internet to research, inquire and make contacts, Gabriel clicked his way through a meandering trail of informants. Have laptop, will travel.
Traversing a sea of sailors, boat builders, cultural historians and rafts of writers and academics he eventually encountered naval architect Daniel Rosyid from Surabaya’s Institut Teknologi Sepuluh Nopember (ITS).
“This idea isn’t entirely new,” said Dr Rosyid. “ITS has done research on partial substitution of timber boats using laminated bamboo components. 
“Gabriel proceeds further by building an entire traditional boat that’s relatively small, using laminated bamboo. The prospect is promising but we need a real prototype project to see its viability.
Back on the bus, this time to Kediri and the High Touch bamboo furniture factory, deep in the East Java city’s sugarcane fields.
The owner, Swiss ex-pat Tony Rush (above, right), a man with 27 years experience of working with bamboo, could have told him to come back with grayer hairs and something more solid than a digital image of a fantasy boat.
Instead he said:  “This is very interesting.  Not a big problem.” Which is not what you’d expect from someone born in a landlocked nation more into skiing than sailing.
Learning as they go, factory workers have sliced long bamboo poles into thin laths.  These are then stuck together to make planks to be moulded into the hull. The composite is bamboo and glue.
The yet unnamed craft will probably be tested later this month (Oct) in the nearby Brantas River, the serpentine watercourse that drains much of East Java’s fertile lowlands.
If she meets all expectations more could follow.
“The long-term vision is to grow and use bamboo in a sustainable and ethical manner, based on the principles of social entrepreneurship,” said Gabriel.
“If this project is successful it could have a real impact on society.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 28 October 2013)