The General

(Dear Readers, If you are enjoying this blog, please send the link to other like minds.  Terima kasih,   Jim)

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At 4:17 am someone got the keys to the local mosque and hit the loudspeaker hard.  I stumbled in my sleep thinking it early for the call to prayer.  As I patted around the mattress for my earplugs (essential in Indonesia) a loud banging came at the door.  “Jim!”  It was Kian. “Get up we have to film the sunrise.”  I unlocked the door and Kian stood in full sound recording regalia – microphone, wind screen, digital recorder and XLR cables. 

“Come on, get dressed.” 

“Huh? Isn’t it too early?” I knew the sunrise didn’t come until 6.  Near the equator, Kian had said – sun up at 6, sun down at 6, all year long. 

“It is call to prayer – do you want to miss the sunrise over the mountain?  Meet me downstairs in five minutes.”

I peeled myself from the hot, sticky bed in my little student cell and fumbled for clothes and camera.  In the narrow corridors of the dorm some flip-flop clad youths were still hanging out from the night before.   I groaned, trying to keep my eyelids up.  Careful on the stairs, Jim.  This steep would never pass code in the U.S.

We went to the roof.  Complete darkness.  I persuaded Kian we could sleep for another hour-and-a-half and we each returned to our rooms.  At ten-to- six, with the next round of blaring prayer,  it was raining and we went down to the canteen for sarapan (breakfast).  We each downed a little plate of rice, prawn cracker and tempeh and Henry soon joined us. 

Henry spoke little English so Kian did the usual translating work.  “Bowo will pick you up at eight,” he said.  Bowo, the master Perkutut trainer for General Zainuri, pulled in on time in a well-worn Range Rover.  He shook our hands without a smile and began to speak to Henry about the competition in Surakarta in two days.  He invited us into the car and we were off to meet one of the former heads of the Indonesian army – now the president of the national Perkutut federation and founder of the Xena Warrior Princess Bird Farm.  Gunawan said it would be an insult for us to not meet with him.

After twenty minutes we drove into a perfectly-landscaped gated fantasy suburb.  Absent were the usual pedicabs, beggars, street vendors and homeless kids. Present were tall stone walls, preened shrubbery and even curbs.  Cloistered behind a wall of volcanic rock  was the general’s house.  An electric gate opened and we pulled in.  Bowo indicated we should remove our shoes and we were lead across a cool marble floor and up the stairs. 

Standing in a central courtyard garden was the general.  He came down the square slate steps and greeted us.  A houseboy brought us our shoes and we were invited to sit on an outdoor sofa.  The general settled into his seat, lit a cigarette and leaned back.  “James,” he said.  “I am pleased to meet you.”

Terima kasih pak,” I said. “You speak English?”

“Just a little.  I was sent to Oklahoma by my army in the 1980’s to study special operations.”

“Oh,” I said, a bit startled. “How did you like Oklahoma?”  (I mean, what does one say to a general of the former Suharto regime?)

Bowo brought out five fancy cages with Perkutut and distributed them around the garden for the general to enjoy.  Kian began explaining our documentary project and the general listened carefully.  Kian handed him a business card and the general asked a question.  Something seemed wrong.  Kian was looking nervous and talking faster.  The general sat quietly and observed him.  I heard the words, “art” and “hobby” and from the general, “National Geographic”.   Kian took a letter from Branda Miller, one of my professors and guru at RPI and placed it on the table in front of the general.  He put on his reading glasses and held the letter up.

“Everything okay?” I asked. 

“He asked if we have a license to film,” Kian said under his breathe.

“Oh.”  We didn’t.

The general got up and went inside.  A few minutes later the houseboy brought us cups of sugary tea.  “Okay, I think it’s okay,” Kian said.

We interviewed the general for about an hour during which staff and family passed gently and barefoot through the garden.  The general’s wife descended the garden steps deliberately and gracefully in a long batik house dress.  We stood and greeted her as she glided past.

“General,” I asked.  “Your bird farm is named after an American television show. Why?”

He looked me sternly in the eye and a smile came across his face.  The smile broke into a hearty laugh.  As was our routine he turned to Kian to answer the question in Indonesian.  “I am very fond of this show.  And I find Xena very beautiful.”  He paused for a moment. “Do you think I could be sued?”

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After the interview the general brought out his photo albums from Oklahoma and his trip to Washington DC and brought us some local bananas (they are better, folks.)

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It was Friday and the noontime call to prayer had begun.  We knew Bowo needed to pray and Kian urged me to say our thank you’s.  The general lead us out past huge portraits of his family and a real stuffed Sumatran tiger.  We were out the door and on our way to the Xena Warrior Princess Bird Farm – which I will cover in the next post.

Assorted Pics

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