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

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Daydreaming among the Dayaks                                 

There are two standard images used by outsiders trying to grasp Indonesia: Jakarta’s shopping malls and wayang kulit shadow puppets.

The first offers surprise – ‘goodness, we never know the country was so rich, modern and sophisticated’.  The second hints at hidden forces manipulating mysterious figures beyond the ken of Westerners. Both are trite.

Australian Dr Mark Heyward has avoided these clichés in Crazy Little Heaven – an Indonesian Journey. Instead he’s used an east-west rock and river trek across Borneo, undertaken almost 20 years ago before the chainsaw triumphed and mercury poisoned waterways.

He went to explore and help explain – at least to himself - the Archipelago’s multi-layered complexities. At the same time his venture became an interior search for direction.

Heyward was 37 and had lived in Kalimantan as a teacher with his Australian wife Jan and family before the 1994 trip, inspired in part by the epic explorations of 19th century British naturalist Alfred Wallace.

Heyward had been in Indonesia for two years so was no naïve newcomer, labelling everyone beautiful and gentle as so many Westerners do, even when being ripped off in Kuta.  He’s prepared to confront the tough stuff.

He asks an anthropologist the most difficult value he’s had to confront. ‘Dishonesty’ was his quick reply’ - letting the author canvass reasons for a trait that troubles so many Westerners, loving Indonesia but hating the lack of trust.

It’s a regular theme in the book as guides ramp agreed payments, pilfer stores and make false promises.  Then there’s the infuriating jam karet (rubber time) and what an American missionary calls ‘form over function’, the government tendency to focus on policy packaging and forget the product.

Eventually Heyward gives up and accepts the ‘frank dishonesty’, adding: ‘Living and travelling in Indonesia teaches you nothing if not flexibility of thinking’.

His mates were two Australians, two Europeans and an Indonesian. One carried dive gear.  They wore bow ties for dinner and played cards round campfires. They met a sandalwood trader who asked the obvious.

The exchange illustrates the cultural divide: ‘This is always difficult to explain’ writes Heyward.  ‘Local people seem unable to comprehend that a journey might be undertaken simply for its own sake.

‘An expedition? the chubby trader suggests. No, not really an expedition.  We just travel for fun.’

The answer is clearly unsatisfactory so they settle on a book.  Who’d risk 17 uncomfortable, exhausting and dangerous days in largely unmapped jungle, far from help, unless there’s another agenda?

A middle-age identity crisis and search for self?  Seeking sense of the bigger issues through a back-to-basics adventure? Time out with the lads to escape domestic responsibilities?  Perception through perspiration?

All these and more, plus the limp ‘fun’.   Before the trip the author’s marriage fell apart and his ‘trailing spouse’, who never wanted to live in the ‘boy’s town’ of Sangatta, returned to Tasmania with the couple’s two kids. On the real and metaphorical watershed between East and West Kalimantan he pondered his future.  The East won.

Later this Anglican bishop’s son met Sopantini, a teacher from Central Java. He converted to Islam – though nicked off for a beer during the marriage ceremonies - and started a new family.  He now works as an international education consultant and lives in Jakarta though has a home in Lombok.

As a travelogue the book moves well.  Heyward comes across as an adaptable guy worth meeting, despite smoking kretek. He has the essentials - curiosity, sense of wonder and feel for place.

These qualities sustain the reader, though the author’s habit of darting after nectar sometimes makes the boots-in-mud tramp difficult to follow. An index would have aided navigation.  Likewise a detailed map.

Knowing something of the lifestyles of Dayak tribespeople living on the Mahakam River, and migrant laborers in Kalimantan’s expanding extractive industries helps provide insights into the problems facing a nascent democracy seeking its place in the world.

What’s the connection between a pale-skinned, miniskirted shopper in a capital plaza and a dark girl with long ear lobes laden with jewelry on the steps of a stilt house?  They illustrate the Republic’s diversity, and hint of the difficulties in running the nation.

One moment he’s confronting a breakfast of boiled frogs in Kalimantan, the next analysing religion in Flores. His observations are usually interesting, though often distracting.

The best are the frank accounts of marriage disintegration, and sharing Idul Fitri with in-laws in Yogya.

The least valuable, musings on the 1965 massacres and 1997 riots, add little, even though Heyward was in Jakarta when Soeharto fell.  A Further Reading list would have led inquirers into more substantial accounts.

Fascination with orang-utans and concern about the deforestation of Kalimantan gets more space than necessary. We know about these things – they’ve been given saturation cover elsewhere by experts.

What we don’t know is how six men from diverse backgrounds held together when confronted by environmental extremes, real dangers and personal challenges in a strange land.  Did the ‘group of misfits’ also experience transformations and wrestle with ambiguities?  Heyward’s discussions are internal monologues rather than campfire debates.

As a fresh expat’s initiation it’s a useful introduction to the archipelago of amazements.  It could have been a better book given ruthless editing and concentration on the real question the author poses: ‘Where are the gods?’

Crazy Little Heaven
By Mark Heyward
Published by Transit Lounge 2013
253 pages

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 20 January 2014)


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