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A river runs through it

Published: Sep 22, 2007
After four years covering the big stories in Jakarta, an Australian journalist revisits the Sumatran village where his journey began

Jim Della-Giacoma

From Sungai Penuh all the way up the Kerinci valley floor the concrete power poles lead the way to the village of Pungut Hilir. When I first called Pungut Hilir home in December 1991 there were no such punctuations in the luminous green rice paddies. Once there was not even a sealed road or trustworthy bridge to cross. This time I found development, including roads and bridges, had come to this remote and beautiful spot.

In the training in Canberra in the weeks before our trip in 1991, which did not to prepare us at all for village life, we had earnestly debated the meaning of cultural exchange. It was a two-way street, we said. Giving and taking experiences. But I think the four weeks in Kerinci taught me most about the vast gulf between myself and the average Indonesian farmer.

Somehow I still got hooked and kept coming back to Indonesia, but never quite made it 'home' to Jambi. However, Pungut Hilir was never to leave my thoughts. It was always a precious yard stick, held by few foreign correspondents, as I traversed the many faces of Indonesia.

That last month in 1991 when 16 young Australians and 16 Indonesians crawled out of our chartered bus after a 14-hour bus trip from the sweltering plains of the provincial capital Jambi, we found a quaint tin roofed village amid the wet season mud. Our Country Road shirts and dress moccasins called Donalds were soon collecting dirt.

Coca Cola We found a new world in the cool mountains of the Sumatran range, home to about 300 people. Simple and, for the most part, honest village dwelling folk. We soon discovered life in Pungut Hilir would be no holiday. It had no electricity, taps, toilets, telephones, television or alcohol. We even had to order up Coca Cola from the district town. It did, however, have the Pungut river running through it. A bathroom, toilet, laundry and swimming pool all in one.

My homecoming took place after a four year stint in the seething metropolis we called the Big Durian, where I had a front row seat in the events of May 1998 as Indonesians exposed their violent alter ego. I had returned, in part, on a quest for the idyllic Indonesia of my past.

This time I took a half-hour motorbike ride. It looked like little had changed. Being the first from our group to return I was slightly nervous about what I might find. But I need not have worried. The events in Jakarta seemed to have passed Pungut Hilir by. I found everybody as laid back as ever watching television.

Electricity had arrived in 1994 and in its wake dozens of television satellite dishes had sprouted from the roof tops. Even the primary school had one.

My unannounced arrival caught the village head Ramli sitting on a mat in front of his own colour screen with family and friends. There are still no telephones and the timing of my trip had been uncertain until the last minute. I was momentarily embarrassed when I reported my presence as I didn't know Ramli, but he seemed to remember me. 'You've changed Jim. You didn't have a beard when you were here.'

I came on a sunny Friday afternoon. The village had stayed in from the now deserted fields after weekly prayers at the mosque. They were all doing well, Ramli said, still dressed in his 'Friday best' sarung. 'The price of rice has doubled, but that's okay. We're the ones selling it,' he said with a casual air oblivious to those in Java suffering from the nation's economic collapse. Crisis? What crisis?


Back in 1991, with the sincerity of all do-gooders, we had set about building a system to pipe water from a nearby hillside to a concrete and brick tank near the primary school. Elsewhere we dug three wells and leveled a volleyball court with villagers pitching in to help in a classic case, or so we thought, of gotong royong.

In between we entertained them with songs from Australia, including the famous rendition of Waltzing Matilda in Indonesian - Ayo Berjalan. We tried to teach the children Australian Rules Football. Nobody seemed to know what happened to the balls we left behind, donated to the vain cause by the Victorian Football League. They played the real football in Kerinci and the kids would kick the oval shaped balls along the ground when they thought we weren't watching.

By the time I returned the three wells had been built over by a department of public works project the year before. They clearly had not been in use. Of the four government provided water tanks I saw only one still worked. I guess the government didn't have much success either.

'Why should people bother,' the village chief's son remarked as we stood beside the white washed toilet block with its two bathrooms complete with porcelain squat toilets. 'The river's right there.' He pointed to the women washing in it nearby to make his point. They were doing things as they'd always been done in the Pungut River. Washing, bathing and defecating in the river in full view of anybody who cared to watch. Any many did watch the strangers back in 1991.

A troupe of children stopped watching television to follow me like the Pied Piper across the bubbling river to the house of Pak Mat Idris, my host for four weeks back in 1991.

He too had his eyes glued to the box in silence with a group of old men and young boys. Time had made me forget many things, including the stiff formality with which Mat Idris ran his household and how uncomfortable I felt with it. Each meal ran like clockwork as the men and boys ate sitting on a mat on the floor in the main room of the wooden Malay-style house. The women and girls stayed bare foot and in the kitchen. When called, they crept carefully out along the floor to the edges of the room with fresh food or to clear plates.

This time I had to ask politely three times to my host to call the women, including his daughter and new grandson, to include them in a photograph. The camera caught us sitting stiffly on an old couch. A well off rice farmer with more than one hectare of paddy and hillside gardens, Mat Idris was never one for idle chatter. There were long pauses between our questions and answers during which we both were grateful that the television hadn't been turned off.

No reply

'When you left we never thought we'd see you again,' he said. 'I got all your letters,' he added. But he never replied, I recalled. I'd stopped writing after I received no reply. The link with the village was broken a year after we left. Illiteracy was perhaps as much a barrier as anything.

'It's much the same around here, not much has changed since you left. But we do have electricity now' he said, pausing, 'and television'. He pointed to the new 14-inch set that dominated the room with the gathered crowd arching around it.

As we sat I recalled pacing his balcony every night while the children watched from below as I manipulated the aerial on my tiny short wave. It was there I heard that Paul Keating had toppled Bob Hawke.

Mat Idris and I had never really connected during my time there. But my days in the village were the first time I found myself comfortable with Indonesia and Indonesians. I'd never got a good night's sleep on his floor with only one blanket between up to four people a night.

This time I kept my ojek driver with his motorbike on stand-by to return to Sungai Penuh and a real bed. He never asked me to stay, I never suggested it.

Our worlds were too far apart. Mat Idris had only once in his 40-odd years been to the provincial capital, let alone Jakarta or overseas. I was a child of migrants who had crossed the world to a new life in a multi-cultural land. Mat Idris was happy going nowhere but his fields or the 10km to Sungai Penuh to sell his rice. I returned on the verge of migrating again across the globe.

But things had progressed in seven years and television was the medium responsible. 'We sometimes watch Australian television,' Mat Idris volunteered at one point. 'But nobody in the village speaks English so we don't understand much. We just watch the news. I see you had a flood, too.' It was the first time I felt we had made a connection. Mat Idris and I finally had something in common.

Jim Della-Giacoma was a correspondent with AFP and Reuters in Jakarta. He now lives in the Washington DC area. His first visit to Pungut Hilir was as member of the Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program.

Inside Indonesia 57: Jan-Mar 1999

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