Feb 27, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

In Memoriam & Ten weeks in Bali, Java, Singapore and Sumatra, December 1981 - March 1982

Published: Oct 04, 2016

Many older readers of Inside Indonesia will remember John Barnard, who died earlier this year in Melbourne after a brief illness. John, who worked as a technician in the science laboratory at Monash University, was a regular attendee at the regular Centre for Southeast Asian Studies seminars where he loved to meet up with old friends and make new ones. A shy retiring person and a bachelor all his life, visiting Indonesia was always a significant annual event for him as his travel diary clearly shows. 

In Memoriam: John Barnard

Anton Lucas

Many older readers of Inside Indonesia will remember John Barnard, who died earlier this year in Melbourne after a brief illness. John, who worked as a technician in the science laboratory at Monash University, was a regular attendee at the regular Centre for Southeast Asian Studies seminars where he loved to meet up with old friends and make new ones. A shy retiring person and a bachelor all his life, visiting Indonesia was always a significant annual event for him as his travel diary clearly shows. 

Before going online in 2007, Inside Indonesia was mailed out to its subscribers; an important occasion, which depended on volunteers. John was always there at the North Carlton office to help. At the time of his death, John’s travel itinerary to Indonesia was re-discovered by a librarian while cataloguing research materials in the Flinders University library. The itinerary is quite personal, but funny and moving as well. Inside Indonesia has always valued personal encounters and experiences while travelling or doing research in Indonesia, and John’s travel account is part of that tradition. John also personified the way young Australians have gotten involved with Indonesia and how it becomes a lifetime commitment, like John’s was. Many participants in the early Australian Volunteers Graduate Scheme (of the 1950s) and Australian Volunteers Abroad, set out on different Indonesian journeys which lasted a lifetime, like John’s did. 

Vale John, you are sadly missed by dear friends both here and in Indonesia.  

My Itinerary: Ten weeks in Bali, Java, Singapore and Sumatra beginning 30 December 1981 in Bali and leaving Jakarta in March 1982

John Barnard

I first met these two Australians on the plane to Bali. We spent the next five days relaxing together after the ‘silly season’ in Melbourne. We also met again in Yogyakarta. I visited them in Melbourne last week and I hope we will become good friends. They were evaluating school-to-work programs with the Victorian Education Department. There are many beautiful place in Bali, and Gwen would say to Bruce, ‘Isn’t this romantic’.

After 13 hours in an overnight bus from Bali, I arrived in Yogyakarta, to spend 16 days visiting friends. My first trip to Java was 6 years ago with a group of 12 young Australians on a Work Study Project (WSP) organised by the local SCM (Student Christian Movement) or GMKI (Gerakan Mahasiswa Kristen Indonesia) committee. We were billeted in the homes of students from the University of Gadjah Mada and we used to come together each day for trips, discussions and meals. Of course this experience has exerted a strong influence on own my trips each year since then.

I have an Australian friend who lived in Yogya for many years and was involved in the two WSPs (with the student pastor Peter Paul van Lelyveld). He had married a local Javanese and they now live in Australia. Several times they have asked me if I’ve married, and I have answered ‘No, too shy’.  They were also visiting Yogya, so I went to see them. 

After the usual question and answer, they proposed that I should be introduced to an eligible cousin of theirs in three days’ time. It was all settled quickly, and with so many smiles, that I could not refuse! I arrived at the appointed time, only to be told that one girl had moved to Jakarta, and another already had a boyfriend – I pretended great disappointment and said I would marry a Sumatran Batak instead. This caused much protest and consternation because Sumatrans have a reputation for being less genteel than Javanese. (On this subject more below.)

Several days were spent with small groups visiting village development projects, e.g. for sago and soya processing and an iron foundry (backyard Chinese style). These were long days; once we left at 8am for one village and went on to the next at 1pm. We drove off the sealed road, looked over their project, and then walked down to the village for lunch at the village chief’s house. There was a thunderstorm, we got drenched walking back, and then we spent three frustrating hours trying to push the 4-wheel drive out of the red mud, helped by 30 village boys who thought it was the greatest joke. I had red mud through my hair and beard! But the boys were shivering. It was almost certain that they had no dry clothes to change into and would get very bad flu and colds.

I have a Javanese friend Rachmat who is also rather shy – well at least until about three months ago when he was introduced to a woman who was also shy, because two years ago her husband was killed in a car accident. In the first week Rachmat and I had serious conversations about their relationship. Have you ever tried to have a serious conversation on the back of a bike driving through crazy traffic? In the second week the lady proposed to Rachmat that they should get married, perhaps next month! Later I went with him to meet her and her two daughters (three and five years). They were all so happy. Rachmat was so busy making arrangements – he said inside his heart was like a night market (in Java a night market is also a time for promenading, but such a crush of people, it’s like Moomba and Victoria market all rolled into one).

I was asked in Melbourne to take some money to a family in a village about 40 miles from Yogya. I had met them two years ago. Because they were very Javanese, and my Indonesian would be inadequate, I asked Rachmat to go with me (He had met them last year). Pak K is about 70 years old and used to be the village chief until he was imprisoned for 16 years as a political prisoner. Released two years ago, he and his wife are now physically broken – they look like an advertisement for Freedom from Hunger.

For me this visit was a memorable experience. Most of the conversation was in Javanese with smiles. I felt no sense of that confrontation/ insecurity when a foreign language is used. Also Rachmat would now and then translate into English/ Indonesian for me. Pak Kromo remembered both our previous visits and conversations – incredible! His wife glowed (almost bubbled) as she looked at the photos of our friends in Melbourne. Pak Kromo admonished Rachmat and me: ‘Be honest in your work and you will sleep at night’.

It was starting to rain, so we asked permission to leave (there is a very polite Javanese expression for this). Pak Kromo rose quickly, thrust out his hand to me and said, in a very strong clear voice, ‘Sampai ketemu lagi’ (until we meet again). I did exactly the same but said ‘Harus ketemu tiga kali’ (we must meet three times). Everyone laughed. His son said to me ‘We must meet ten times’, and again we laughed (I have now met them both twice). As we went out the door I felt very emotional and wanted to hug them.

Later I tried to explain these emotions. I felt a spirit there – not a ghost but a spirit of place, a sense of history (not of the textbook type) and humility to be among people who have suffered so much, and yet received me with warmth. I feel very close to this family and yet I hardly know them – perhaps the bond is affection for the mutual friends in Melbourne. As I said, a memorable experience.

In Yogya I met an interesting young Australian. Duncan was tall and lean and rode his bicycle (with ten-speed gears) from Jakarta to Yogya in three weeks. He also rode the 30 kilometres to the famous Muslim school (pesantren) of Pabelan and talked to a senior lecturer there. We talked about his visit.

Now Pabelan is the most famous Muslim school in Indonesia, and dignitaries from all over visit. It is open to the influence of Schumacher and Ivan Illich. VS Naipaul visited there for about an hour and wrote several pages about it in his book Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey. He dismissed its philosophy as ‘teaching villagers to be villagers’.

I had a letter of introduction to visit Pabelan, and arranged to meet the lecturer Duncan had met. He told me about some projects: a peace and development studies discussion group, and a group who introduced village people to the people who run the small night food stalls, thus cutting out the middle men (who take most of the profits) in the goods supply chain. Discussion groups seem to be popular among young people in Java. I would be interested to know if they are used here in Australia, or elsewhere for that matter.

I stayed at a great hotel just off the main street of Yogya; great because the people there know me well, and always look after me. One of the blokes has asked me to bring some pornography next year – for his wife! (So, sisters, please have a look through your closets.)

During the day some Australian women have real hassles on the main street (see The Age article of 25 April 1981). But after 9pm the shops are closed, food stalls are set up and mats are put on the pavement, and young Indonesians sit over a leisurely meal and talk with their friends in the balmy night – very civilised.

There was a regular group of becak (trishaw) drivers outside our hotel. One of them was very keen to practice his English. Several times we sat on the road and read a page in English. I would try to translate into Indonesian, and then there would be an animated discussion in a crazy mixture of English/ Indonesian/ Javanese with the other becak drivers – great fun. At the start of each lesson I would pretend that I would charge $10 for each hour, but at the end I would say ‘Thanks for the Indonesian lesson – it was good, we’re even’. Once we all had a drink of herbal medicine/tonic from a passing vendor – they paid for me. Then when I had to leave Yogya they offered to drive me a kilometre to the railway station – no charge. I said thanks, but suggested we walk together, and so we did.

I then went by overnight train to Jakarta (15 hours). There I managed to visit the new prison for women political prisoners and spent an hour talking with six of the women. I managed to arrange meetings with most of my friends for later in February. By now I had managed to hand out 15 kilograms of books and papers as ‘small presents’.

I flew to Singapore where I stayed the first two days in the Bencoolen Street area, perhaps the cheapest accommodation in Singapore. There I met many young tourists traveling in Asia ‘on a shoestring’, often overland from Europe. A popular meeting place was Lover’s Bar. Imagine a Chinese cafe open on the corner of Swanston and Elizabeth streets in Melbourne, but with many more motor bikes with noisy exhausts. But one night I went for coffee at the Hilton hotel with two friends and another night we promenaded with all the ‘beautiful people’ around the hanging gardens and waterfalls of the Shangri-La hotel – Singapore’s newest magnificence!

The next three days I lived on the tenth floor of one of 20 similar apartment buildings in the north area of Bedok with a friend and his wife. My friend was in our WSP group to Yogya six years ago, and has been in Singapore now for 18 months, teaching in a Catholic secondary school. So I brought news of our friends in Melbourne and Java. We talked of their life in Singapore, their ideals and aspirations and the pressures and controls on their lives.

I visited, twice, a very efficient mob called the International Development Research Council which is funded by the Canadian Government. They are technocrats but have networks in Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. Therefore, their projects are multilateral. They were very interested in Australian Volunteers Abroad and the Australian Asian Universities Cooperation Scheme (now called Australian Asian Universities Development Program). Again, knowledge of food processing was stressed.

I left Singapore by train and met a young woman who had just spent two years as a volunteer teaching English in Sabah, West Malaysia (Formerly Borneo). When she said she was Canadian, I guessed she was from CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas). She was rather surprised that I knew of them, and so our conversation came easily. Well we spent much of the next three days exploring Kuala Lumpur together – she even persuaded me to eat durian (a fetid fruit that sends Asians into ecstasy (see Michael Richardson’s article in The Age on 1 July 1981). I could learn to like Janet very much – perhaps she will write on her return to Canada?

On the next six-hour train trip I met yet another woman whom I hope to meet again next year. She is a nun who has been teaching in Malaysia for 15 years and recently has managed to set up an education program for political prisoners. The next three days I spent in Penang, where the highlights were an Indian vegetarian restaurant and the Indian Thaipusam festival – using hooks and spears in their flesh, young entranced men carried or pulled gaily decorated religious statues and icons in a long procession.

I flew from Penang to Medan, North Sumatra. Because it was already dark I went to the nearest hotel where I was offered a bed in a dormitory with a young friendly German. He was just going out to eat so I went with him. On our return we saw a huge rat scamper back into the toilet at the end of dorm. This orifice we soon blocked with rocks, but the bottom planks of the door were rotten and it took us half an hour of ‘bush carpentry’ to block that up. The German wanted to use his pressure pack of tear gas – I did not like that idea. Several times the scratching and gnawing woke me during the night. I left very early next morning. 

Since August I had been nervous about this part of the trip. Bill Dalton’s Indonesia Handbook has some rather daunting passages about bus travel in Sumatra during the rainy season (December through April). In short, floods cause buses to be stranded for several days.

My first bus trip lasted four hours and there was not even a drop of rain until I was settled on the veranda of the hotel. Its name was Carolina’s, on a huge island in the middle of Lake Toba. The location is isolated, the weather cool and sunny, the scenery breathtaking – the perfect place for all those tourists I have met in Jakarta who do not like Asian cities, crowds and oppressive heat. 

Of course there were many tourists. The rooms of the hotel were nestled among the rocks and palm trees and creepers with pink and white flowers. Up the small hill the veranda and restaurant overlooked the lake, and there was a stairway down to the wall at the water’s edge. We dived off the wall into deep crystal-clear water. Gwen would have said to Bruce ‘Isn’t this romantic’!

Just before dusk, the guests came to the restaurant to eat. Some sat in couples, but three sat at separate tables by themselves; two women, a grey haired old American bloke enjoying his whiskey and myself. Well, I made an effort to mix and later I had my meal with the Dutch woman, the German woman and her parents. They spent most of the time speaking in German. Often Europeans and Australians do not mix well. I felt tired and cold, and perhaps with early symptoms of flu, so I went to bed at 8pm.

The next morning, I went for a long walk and met the Dutch women again and we had a meal of fried vegetables with the most delicious chili sauce. She could have been very interesting to talk to, because she is a social worker but spends her holidays working as a KLM air hostess.

The afternoon I spent catching up on my diary. Each year I try to write up details of itinerary, conversations and impressions, as basis for future discussions etc. There was a group of Indonesians having a meeting together and a nip of whiskey. The Sumatrans then came over with their guitars and started to sing. The American bought another bottle of whiskey and we were given an impromptu concert. Fantastic voices and songs – Batak Sumatrans are the Welshmen of Indonesia. They also drank most of his whiskey (not me). About 10pm the guests were asked to sing their national songs – I sang Waltzing Matilda – then everyone went to bed. A great night.

In contrast I must mention Derman. Late one afternoon I sat in a secluded spot by the lake. Derman rowed past in his hollowed out canoe and spoke to me. After school each day he tries to fill a small tin with white bait which he sells for duck food. He asked me if I had medicine for the massive ulcers on his legs, and if I would change some Australian coins into rupiah. He could not afford to go to the government health centre which was on the track just near us, but five kilometres from the nearest village.

After three days I felt ready for the 18 hour bus trip to Bukitinggi. But I stopped after six hours in a port town called Sibolga. The next bus was due to leave at 2am so I booked into a hotel near the cafe where the buses stop. From 4 until 6pm I rested and then talked with the young blokes who ran the hotel. I rested again from 10.30 until midnight, when the hotel was locked, so I went to the cafe to write some letters until the bus arrived. 

A drunk with tattoos wanted to talk – he used to be a sailor, now he said he was a criminal. Apin wanted me to cancel my bus trip and to stay at his house. I did not like that idea. He persisted for almost an hour, then left. My next interviewer was different. He wanted to talk about Darwin, evolution, and the Bible. Then we talked about legal processes in Australia and Indonesia because he was a court investigation officer.

I welcome such opportunities to have serious conversations. Indonesians think we can read so much that they don’t have access to. But I often feel uncomfortable, and I tell them so, because my Indonesian language is inadequate. On another occasion I was asked by an official of the Department of Religion, ‘What are the recent developments in religion in Australia’?

The bus finally arrived at 3am – phew! My head was dizzy and I slept until 6am. I spent the next nine hours amazed at the ruggedness and beauty of the scenery. We travelled up and down mountains, the road was very narrow. Vehicles had to stop, and one would back-up off the road, so that the other could pass – a real driving feat. There was little sunlight, only a gentle misty light. 

We passed through several small towns. The houses were of bleached wood. Bukitinggi was high in the mountains and cooler than Lake Toba. I had a good appetite for the Padang style food which uses many cuts of meat, vegetables, curries and chilies. I met two Danes who had spent six weeks living with an Indian tribe in Ecuador. Their purpose was to collect samples and recipes of traditional medicine. They learned how to catch and cook piranha. The first day I was walking down the street when two young Indonesian women crossed the road to say hello to me – I was so surprised I didn’t know how to reply. (In Java the women are rather shy.). 

By now I had spent four weeks travelling as a tourist, and I wanted to get back to Jakarta to see my friends again. I had made many appointments and there was much to be done. I am more vulnerable when I am travelling (usually alone). I am a foreigner and most rely on other people’s help and information, and trust them for direction. Most times I prefer to stay in small hotels, in Bali these hotels are like motel units, surrounded by gardens. Young tourists stay in these hotels – some are very interesting, but tourist talk often revolves around ‘Where did you stay?’ ‘My stomach upset is so bad’, ‘Where did you eat?’ ‘What time does the bus leave?’ ‘Where’s the bus station? How do you get there?’

These young tourists spend most of their time travelling. Stopping only for a day or two – they don’t have much time to wash clothes, which often would look more appropriate at a beach resort than for travelling through a Muslim country. The Indonesians find this hard to understand and feel offended. Indonesian small talk is ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Where are you going?’ ‘I want to practice my English’, ‘Where are you from?’ (One bloke said I must be Japanese – I was too short to be an Australian!) ‘Are you married?’ ‘How old are you?’ To which they often remark ‘Oh you are still young!’ (is it true?) – That is, you really don’t look too bad!

The Sunday afternoon I was sitting at the lookout of a very picturesque canyon. There were many Indonesians walking around, but I was feeling rather conspicuous and a little lonely. Two young women with their brother came up to talk to me, but I became very shy. This was not certainly not the way to meet ‘that’ Batak woman….

On the road to Padang there were several signs such as ‘Look after the beauty of our countryside and city – keep it clean’. We descended from the mountains into a great cloud of fumes from a cement factory. Everything seemed to be covered in fine dust.

The bus trip to Padang airport turned into a party – the cassette was on maximum volume and we jived to ‘Play that funky music white boy’. The next two weeks in Jakarta were busy – 6 or 7 hours were spent each day, except Sunday, travelling around visiting friends in their offices.

Bus travel in Jakarta is crowded, hot and tiring – I would not be surprised if the hardest part of each day for a Jakarta worker is travelling to and from the office. Traffic flow is incredible – like Chapel Street in Prahran in Melbourne on a Saturday morning, but with so many motorbikes and bicycles. Even the pavements are packed with traders’ stalls and vehicles. On the roads, vehicles stop, turn and swerve in and out like a swarm of ants.

But when I arrived at an office I tried to appear unhurried, unflustered and calm, even if the person I wanted was not in the office, because I feel it was part of their culture. For example, they have a proverb ‘While we sleep the rice grows’.

Several times I visited a friend who is a pharmacologist involved in research on traditional medicine – his laboratory would like to cooperate with a group in Australia or Japan. His nephew is four years old, deaf and dumb and he has an expressionless face. We sat and looked at some photos. My friend told me that he had been taught the sign ‘thumbs up’ for ‘good’ and little finger up when he was not happy. So every time we saw my friend, his uncle, in a photo we would both raise our thumbs. When I left he raised his thumb – I was pleased. I will send him a photo of my four year old nephew and me, both with our thumbs up.

These days were challenging. I talked with people who thirst after truth and justice. As I learn more about Australian society, I must acknowledge ‘there is only one world’, that we’re not so different and neither are our societal problems. How can I become more involved? There are several small projects which were suggested on my trip, as well as my Indonesian language to work on now I am back in Australia.

Well, I have described parts of my trip. My aim was to try to form an overall picture, but at school I was always hopeless at essays, so it may all seem like a jig-saw puzzle to the reader.

I was presumptuous enough to use the name Suyono Barnardjoe at the railway booking office in Yogya, because it was easier for them to spell – they thought it was a great joke, and sold me a very good seat at the cheapest price in the dining car.


John Barnard was a volunteer at Inside Indonesia in the 1980s and 1990s.

Inside Indonesia 126: Oct-Dec 2016{jcomments on}


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