Some time ago I travelled through Asia on a British Council lecture tour. It started in Jakarta where I stayed with friends. I was overwhelmed by the exotic colours, vivacity, chatter and humdrum chaos, but fascinated too. Banana bushes – or trees? – seemed to grow before my eyes. Humid air boxed me into a space I peered out of while perpetually more or less damp.
I left the air-conditioning in the house where I was staying for a third-class train carriage – all the first-class tickets had been snapped up. First, second or third class, the views were equally impressive. Distant figures clambered up row upon row of terraced mountain-sides to cultivate narrow terraces scarcely wide enough for a bullock and cart. There seemed hardly enough earth to grow sufficient food either for a donkey or a wife, let alone a family. Moving from one terrace to another, the man would be followed by his wife with a huge bundle on her head and their children, the tallest boy first. The wife stood upright like a column, strong through physical need, stoical survivors in a harsh environment.
Back home my friends came round one evening to hear what I had been doing on my tour of the East. I started by recounting my first and only flight in a helicopter when a Luchino Visconti lookalike (he was a cousin) fondled my knee. I was consumed by anxiety because there was only a metal wall and a window between me and vast space – I prefer to have some sort of engine in front for imagined protection. We had been invited to a deserted island with sandy beaches. I continued with an account how I accompanied my friend to a gaudy market, brimming over with exotic fruit and vegetables, where we were followed by small boys clamouring to carry whatever we bought in exchange for a few pennies.
As I continued, I felt a tremor of criticism in the air, but continued to recount how a kind rickshaw man had taken me to explore the back alleys, the ruins of an earlier settlement and then a batik shop where local people bought batik – cloth woven and printed it with attractive but unstable colour flower patterns. He was my guide to local buildings and others overcome by the encroaching desert sand. Nimble and amiable, he was constantly waving to friends pulling rickshaws taking children to school, their mothers to markets and their fathers to work in a timeworn pattern of social and physical survival.
‘And all this for only 80p an afternoon!’ I said, oblivious.
‘You exploiter!’ my friends chorused. ‘How could you pay so little! Really, I never thought you would do that…I’m disappointed in you…’ And so it went on.
‘But I gave him more than he asked for,’ I protested. ‘He left satisfied, I’m sure of it.’
Then I told them how the streets outside the simple hotel where I was staying were filled with men and women squatting on rugs, selling jewellery and a variety of baubles to kitchen utensils displayed around them. They disappeared just before sunset to be replaced by men with grimy pots bubbling away on small paraffin or wood burners beside a pile of earthenware bowls. Local people, mainly men, stood around eating a sort of stew made from the exotic vegetables I had observed in the market. The empty bowls were given a cursory dip into a plastic bucket of murky water. A man standing nearby, bowl in hand, called out to me. There he was, my rickshaw man busy providing a pavement supper for his family from some of the money I had paid him.
I was struck how light and nimble Indonesians are. They squat to rest their legs, even perched on benches provided by the Dutch when they laid out the park in Bandung. My friend said they must have lighter bottoms than Europeans – we toppled over when we tried to follow their example.
When walking alone in the park I was startled to hear a chattering group of schoolchildren come up to surround me. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, all smiles. Then one stepped out in front and photographed me in the middle of Indonesian faces. Why did they want me in the photograph? For the only time in my life, I had become ‘exotic’, it was explained later. They had only seen people like me in films or newsreels, so I, to them, was rare – even exotic – for the first and last time in my life!