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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Portraits of Indonesia

I visited the National Museum in the afternoon, thinking it would be quiet and that maybe I would get a personal tour from the volunteer English-speaking guide provided by the Indonesian Heritage Society (IHS). But not so. As I stood in the foyer, awaiting the guide, there were schoolchildren everywhere – apparently, that afternoon, several schools had planned a field trip to the museum. 

I don’t remember how this happened – whether they approached me first, or whether I, just meaning to be polite, greeted them first. But no sooner had the words “Selamat Siang (good afternoon)” sprang from my mouth, I was swarmed by smiling kids who wanted to take a photo with me. “Where are you from?,” they asked, in English. “Amerika serikat (the United States),” I responded. Their excitement grew. “Oh-bama!”
 
While I've been told I resemble our 44th President, I knew their glee was not about me, but about what America, as an idea and a place, is - so much more accessible to them, in no small part because our president spent several formative years of his life in Jakarta, in schools not unlike theirs. And after a few unsuccessful attempts, he finally made it back for a visit just months ago.
 
The schoolchildren’s teachers signaled that it was time to enter the museum. And then something very unexpected happened. One by one, single-file, the students – scores of them – shook my hand, bringing my hand to their foreheads, a mark of high respect. I was moved.
 
By then, the IHS guide had arrived along with three other visitors who joined our tour. We followed the kids into the museum, allowing some space so that those of us in our small group could hear each other. Our guide, a French expat, was very well-informed about the museum, and her enthusiasm about its holdings and story was infectious.
 
Our first stop was an immense map on the wall, displaying the vast swath of the approximately 17,000 islands that comprise Indonesia. All along the borders of the map were sketched portraits of inhabitants, illustrating the breadth of the population’s phenotypic diversity, from sub-Saharan-African-looking people to fair-skinned-Chinese-looking people. Our guide explained that each person had come to the museum to sit for his or her portrait.
 
Opposite this vertical map was a horizontal one, in relief, about waist-height. Our guide explained that millions of years ago, there were two main land masses, now mostly under water, that made up Indonesia and much of the surrounding area. The Wallace Line, running between Bali and Borneo to the west and Lombok and Sulawesi to the east roughly demarcates those two ancient land masses. Generally, organisms to the west are biologically distinct from those to the east.
 
Two members of our impromptu tour group were tourists, just visiting Indonesia for a couple of weeks. They were planning to spend most of their time on Java Island, so our guide suggested that we focus our 1.5-hour session that day on Javanese history and culture. We could tell that she was also well-prepared to give us any number of other-themed tours.
 
We learned about ancient Java Man, believed at one time to hold a key to understanding human evolution. We learned about the variety and history of Javanese batik fabrics, and about the music, fables and homes of early Javanese people. There was still much to see and learn about our day's topic by the time our tour ended.  But I’ll be back.  And, I suspect, so will the President.


(published in the Kayon, Summer 2011)

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