Two Guys I Met in Jakarta…Gone Too Soon

It may seem an inappropriate way to begin a serious discussion, but the incredible nature of this coincidence forces me to talk about an issue of personal hygiene. My wife and I were re-organizing the bathroom of our boys (who have been gone for nearly 10 years). We happened upon a container of Epsom salts that I had hoped would help alleviate the problem I had been having with calluses and dead skin on my feet. Later that day, I saw that container perched upon a foot-bathing tub along with a piece of pumice; I’m guessing I had not touched a piece of pumice in about 20 years. In an unbelievable coincidence, checking my Facebook that same day, I got news from a friend that Pandji Putranto had passed away. He and I had spent a week in Lombok studying the pumice mining business 33 years ago! 

We were there because we shared an interest in child labor issues. We saw hundreds of children alongside older women kicking away the topsoil and gathering pumice stones of varying sizes. They would bag them in big sacks and trucks would come by and pick them up. We later saw the huge facility that sorted them by size and cleaned the stones before loading them on ships. According to our research at the time, it was a military-run cooperative. Like many Suharto-era “cooperatives” it was not for the benefit of those at the bottom. The cooperative set the price paid to these poor villagers. Bare subsistence.

Indonesians had a name for these villages that were almost totally devoid of men. Most fathers and young men had gone to Malaysia to pick bananas. Some would come home for a holiday, but the journey was so perilous that many stopped coming back and just remained in Malaysia.

We heard rumors that this was the largest deposit/export platform of pumice in the world. During my next visit home to the United States, I called the US Geological Survey in Washington to find out what they knew. I was told that no deposit in Indonesia was even in the top ten in the world.  I imagined at the time that this whole operation was off-the-books, so to speak. That all of these ships full of pumice stone would go to some place like Macau and would be used for distressing denim in order to make stone-washed jeans. And also cosmetics. (Our younger son, Ollie, who teaches data science at University College London later told me that USGS is not a very reliable source.)

A 2021 article described a huge volcanic explosion in 1257 AD that was multiple times bigger than Krakatoa and Tambora. It would explain why half of the island of Lombok has deep pockets of pumice stone throughout. (It was the Samalas volcano, not Rinjani.) Researchers have even found an historical record called the “Babad Lombok” written in old Japanese on palm leaves, documenting the huge explosion.

There was another collaboration which took place in Jakarta and I think it was my most memorable event in the 3 years that I spent there. Pandji worked with an organization that helped kids and was focused on the poor and their health issues. When I asked him if he could arrange a visit to a poor neighborhood where we could take the US ambassador to show the conditions of kids living in poverty, he quickly agreed. The neighborhood he chose, Tanjung Priok, had some political significance. Almost any well-informed Indonesian would remember that was where Suharto’s police and army had massacred a good number of Muslim activists (a couple of dozen – or, some say, hundreds) a few years earlier.

Together with the embassy’s labor attaché, we attended an iftar meal. When the meal was over and we went outside, there was quite a spectacle. Hundreds of children and young people had surrounded the ambassador’s limousine and with the TVRI television lights lighting up the scene of this American politician, it was something these children would clamor to get closer. This made me kind of nervous because there is an Indonesian/Javanese word to convey bustling atmosphere (noise)Ojok rame-rame” which means that a crowd may get out of hand even if there are no ill intentions. In my car I had a large number of T-shirts, maybe 60 or 70. I took the bag and flung it over my shoulder and most of the kids scrambled to get one of those T-shirts. I told the ambassador that it was probably a good opportunity to leave. He had absolutely no security and there were no police around, either.

In retrospect, I feel like I let Pandji down regarding Lombok. When I asked him to organize the trip, there was an implicit pledge to do something for the exploited kids there. I usually undertake such research with the confidence that I can get a journalist (local or international) to bring the story to the attention of the public and thereby force some positive changes. But, in this case I tried for years to get a journalist interested and I failed. This strategy can be traced back to my time in law school a decade before our trip. After one or two classes about international law and human rights law, I quickly realized that there were almost no legal venues to adjudicate such cases. So, I quickly changed my focus to media law. It was only in the “court of public opinion” that we could win this type of case, I surmised. 

Here is an example I remember vividly: I had brought up the issue of illegal settlements in the West Bank (early 1980s) and suggested that these were “bargaining chips” that the Israelis would use to get more advantage during any possible two state solution discussions. The video images of IDF soldiers pulling protesting and screaming settlers out of these new houses would make it seem as if they were giving a lot for a peace settlement. My professor, a world-renowned human rights expert (Myres McDougal), exploded with indignation at this suggestion – that this was the intent of such settlement actions. Seemed perfectly reasonable – if somewhat cynical – to me! Again, this convinced me that persistent violation of international norms and laws could go on for decades with no court available to the aggrieved parties.

In closing, I must share my most fond memory and that is Pandji’s laugh and the good-natured personality that he always displayed. I can hear his wheezy laugh to this day. He would usually make some disparaging comment or say something to mock an action I had taken. That would send him into a small fit of laughter. It was quite enjoyable because I knew it was friendly and just an attempt to be entertaining and be an enjoyable companion, which he definitely was, always!

What follows is a lesser coincidence but is a loss I feel just as deeply.  Johnny McDougall also spent most of the last 20 years living on Bali. His sister informed me a few weeks ago that he had passed away — too very young. As with Pandji we met in Jakarta soon after my arrival. He returned to the United States to get a doctorate in anthropology, studying under the famous professor, Clifford Geertz at Princeton University. He returned to Indonesia and became one of the world’s leading authorities about internal security threats in the country. He was so close to the 2002 Bali bombing that he helped dig through the rubble for that entire awful night.

The coincidence here was that – just days after I heard the terrible news of his passing – a local university radio station played more than an hour of Balinese music. Normally, I only listen to one program on this station but this day I tuned in to the program Odyssey which plays music from all over the world – just a coincidence that I was tuned in that afternoon.

Last coincidence (I promise) is one that breaks my heart. Both friends left behind a child that is the same age as I was when my father passed away – just beginning college.