Homecoming / by Bernice Beltran

My family lived in Jakarta for six years before Dad found a new job in Surabaya and brought us there. It was here, in Indonesia's ibu kota (capital city), where my brother and I learned to walk and to speak in three languages: Filipino, Bahasa Indonesia, and English. Before we knew the words of Lupang Hinirang, we sang Indonesia Raya in school and saluted to the red and white flag. Our Indonesian house helper learned to cook Filipino food for us but our kitchen reeked of sambal that she made for herself.

Sambal is a sauce made from chili peppers mixed with other ingredients which varied from region to region. It should not be surprising since the mythical spice island Maluku (Moluccas) is located in Indonesia.

I watched our house helper ate her food with sambal. She hissed and sweat but she carried on, never stopping for a glass of water until she's done eating. She said it was enak (delicious) but I was not convinced. Nevertheless, the sight of her consuming an insane amount of spicy sauce was entertaining. She looked like she enjoyed torturing herself. Little did I know that the sambal, or the spices to be exact, she liked to cook and eat with her food played a significant part in Indonesia's history. That said, I thought that the red in the Indonesian flag symbolized not just the blood in their veins but also the sambal in their food.

In 1998, we moved back to Manila due to an economic crisis that happened the year before. Dad said there's no telling when the economy would stabilize. As I was barely in my teens, I didn't understand what it meant and why we were affected.

My brother and I dressed in Indonesian garb during Ibu Kartini Day celebration in our school in Jakarta, Indonesia. This photo was probably taken in 1993, if I'm not mistaken. 

My brother and I dressed in Indonesian garb during Ibu Kartini Day celebration in our school in Jakarta, Indonesia. This photo was probably taken in 1993, if I'm not mistaken. 

Twenty years later, I returned as a tourist. My plan was to travel across Java from west to east, Jakarta being my starting point. I focused on one place: Kota Tua. Then I would take the train to Cirebon, Semarang, Yogyakarta and Surabaya to spend some time with my mom and to see my friends before heading back to Manila.

Indonesia's capital was once a small Javanese harbor town known as Sunda Kelapa circa 13th to 16th century during the time of the Hindu Kingdom of Sunda. Fatahillah, the Sultanate of Demak's commander, conquered Sunda Kelapa and gave the town a new name: Jayakarta. A Dutch-chartered company Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC or the Dutch East India Company) destroyed Jayakarta and established Batavia, a new town that was designed according to European urban planning that featured a public square, canals, city walls, churches, and office buildings. The town expanded and later on became the Jakarta that we know today--an ambitious city with towering condominiums, skyscrapers, malls, affluent neighborhoods, highways, and flyovers. The area where Batavia was is now called Kota Tua, or the 'old city' in Indonesian.

The Fatahillah Square, a popular place in Kota Tua, was as gray as the clouds that loomed overhead. It drizzled when I arrived but it didn't last long. The giddy students in bright red uniforms and their teachers on a field trip didn't seem threatened. The teenagers on neon bikes circling the plaza didn't slow down. One of them almost knocked off a couple who were taking selfies.

Enclosing the square were well-preserved colonial buildings erected during the Dutch rule. The Museum Fatahillah occupied the entire north side of the square. This massive white building held a collection of furniture, inscriptions, maps and archeological pieces spanning from the precolonial era to the Dutch regime. Large windows lined the hallway on the second floor from which you could see the entire plaza and all the buildings surrounding it: the Cafe Batavia, the Museum of Fine Arts and Ceramics, the Gedoeng Jasindo and the Wayang Museum.

Another historical place on my list was Sunda Kelapa, the 'birthplace' of Jakarta. It was the port that enabled the trade between the Indonesians and the merchants from Asia and Europe. I booked a motorbike using Uber, but the driver, upon seeing the destination, looked confused. His brows merged.

"The port? Do you have a friend there?" he asked in Indonesian.

"Yes," I lied. As a woman traveling alone, I developed ways to protect myself. One was to pretend that I was always about to meet someone, even when I wasn't. The other one was to act like I knew what I was doing, even when I sometimes didn't. In my defense, I thought I knew what I was doing. Sunda Kelapa was on TripAdvisor--I checked that several times!

The driver dropped me off at the entrance. I could see the ships docked at the quay through the gate which only confirmed that I was at the port. I paid him and proceeded to the rusty gate, where there was a big no walking sign mounted. As I was about to enter, a security officer approached me and asked what the hell I was doing there.

By now, it was clear to me that I was lost. I checked my Google Maps and the red pin was on Sunda Kelapa. While at it, I searched for another place on the map and pretended that I was going somewhere else. A quick scan revealed Pluit Sea View. Whatever that was, it looked close enough to walk. I just wanted to get out of here. The security officer said it was within walking distance.

Along the way, I passed by rundown buildings, slums, men fishing in a murky river that stank like sewage, and teenage boys smoking kretek (clove cigarettes). The cars honked impatiently as ten-wheeler trucks crawled and motorbikes sneaked in every space they found on the road. I trudged the pavement alone and jumped over open manholes. My backpack felt heavy with the two cameras that I was afraid to use. I followed the map, turned left at the corner, and then right only to find more slums and more abandoned buildings. Thirty minutes later, Pluit Sea View was still nowhere in sight. I ditched my plan and took a motorbike taxi back to Fatahillah Square.

There were more old Dutch buildings on our way back, though many of them were still in ruins. We reached the Fatahillah Square just in time for dinner. In a nearby restaurant, I ordered chicken satay with peanut sauce and rice for dinner. It was the only dish on the menu that was not spicy.

"You should try Indonesian food with sambal. Enak!" the waiter suggested like it was the restaurant's best-seller.

"I don't like spicy food."

"What would your chicken taste like without it?" he asked.

"It tastes like chicken."

Still, there was no escaping the strong smell of sambal. It stuck on the walls of the restaurant like the smell of cigarette on my shirt.

After finishing my food, I lingered for a bit to photograph. Fatahillah Square looked livelier than it was earlier as hordes of visitors started pouring in. I saw big groups of families and friends having a picnic. The living statues posed as people lined up for pictures. A few musicians intrusively serenaded couples on a date. There was virtually no foreign tourist. Fatahillah Square seemed more like a social space where many Indonesians hang out after school or work than a tourist spot. 

On my last day, I went to the Museum Bank Indonesia where I learned more about the spice trade. Inside it was a labyrinth of dioramas depicting Indonesia's past that began with the precolonial era--when the Indonesians traded goods, such as spices, with its neighboring countries.

The spices from Southeast Asia reached Europe and their increasing prices drove the Europeans to launch expeditions eastward in search for the spice island, Moluccas. One thing led to another: wars were waged, villages were colonized, until finally the Indonesians expelled foreign invaders and claim their independence in 1945. There was so much to read but I needed to leave in a few hours to catch a train to Dad's place in Cirebon. I passed through more dioramas at a quick pace until I found a series of poster boards on the economic crisis in 1997. Finally, here's a portion of the Indonesian history that I lived to see. Yet, I left the museum feeling unenlightened just as I did in 1998 when my family and I left Indonesia.

We could have just stayed but it wasn't my decision to make. Dad said that it would be safer for us to live in the Philippines. The economy was such a difficult topic to grasp, even as I read the text on the poster boards in Museum Bank Indonesia. The jargons were alienating, the numbers and the graphs never made sense to me, but the economic crisis's impact on my family was both palpable and indelible. It affected our decisions and our lifestyle. It pushed us to find greener pastures elsewhere. It separated my family from our relatives and friends. It shaped our identity. We lived at the mercy of a volatile economy. At least, I understood that much.

In Manila, I felt out of place despite my classmates' efforts to make me feel welcomed. They talked about the TV shows that I never saw, sang songs that I never heard, and played games that I didn't know. I spoke fluent Tagalog but I struggled to pass some subjects. I didn't realize that there were so many Tagalog words that I didn't learn at home in Indonesia. The Filipino culture seemed so new and so foreign. Perhaps, the only consolation was that I didn't have to ask the waiters in the restaurants to remove the sambal from of my food.

"Sometimes, you're left with no choice but to just grab whatever opportunity you get even if it meant leaving your family and friends behind," Dad said when he tried to explain our situation the 11-year-old me.

My family moved back to Indonesia in 2001, leaving me alone to finish my studies. It was another difficult chapter of my life but there was a sense of relief in knowing that I could easily come back. No matter how much I loathed the pungent smell of sambal, it brought back so many memories of my childhood in Indonesia and I missed that. Even though I didn't get the chance to find our old house during the trip and even though I didn't fully understand why the economy collapsed in 1997, it felt like I had come full circle.

I called a motorbike taxi to take me to the train station in Gambir. The driver detected my foreign accent when I spoke to him and asked where I was from.

"You miss Filipin?" he asked in broken English.

"I do."

"Do you miss Indonesia when you're in Filipin?"

"Yeah, that's why I'm here."